When the Going Gets Tough: $2M NSF Grant Enables Researchers to Examine Difficult Engineering Problems

Issue Date: 
November 12, 2007

How can engineers help reduce tree-related fatal car accidents along a heavily traveled, wooded road? Removing some of the trees may save lives, but what if the trees are redwoods, a protected species?

Researchers from Pitt’s School of Engineering are spearheading a $2 million multi-institutional project intended to help engineering students solve such nuanced dilemmas as described above.

Larry Shuman, an industrial engineering professor and the engineering school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, and Mary Besterfield-Sacre, the Fulton C. Noss Faculty Fellow and professor of industrial engineering, will collaborate on the four-year project with colleagues from the California Polytechnic State University, Colorado School of Mines, Purdue University, University of Minnesota, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The project, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, seeks to extend the use of a mathematical problem-solving methodology known as model-eliciting activities, or MEAs, in teaching engineering. Only recently applied to engineering, MEAs present students with an open-ended case study that simulates a real-world scenario and encourages them to develop creative and ethical resolutions. For example, students might play the roles of company engineers faced with products that have been found to fail and potentially could cause serious injury or death.

Shuman and Besterfield-Sacre will integrate MEAs into existing industrial engineering courses at Pitt to explore their effectiveness in helping students become better problem solvers. At the same time, they and their colleagues will note how students develop solutions in order to identify the areas of the problem-solving process educators should focus on most, Besterfield-Sacre said.

They plan to present these results at conferences and in academic journals, as well as in workshops and through educational material for teachers at all educational levels.

“Sometimes engineers have to make decisions without having all the information, and we want to prepare students for that,” Shuman said. “We also want to understand how student teams identify and resolve engineering problems. We want to understand enough to model this type of problem-solving process and then improve learning.”