Investigators in bold are MEERC affiliates.

Fostering Effective Oral Communication Skills for STEM Graduate Students

Investigator(s):    Shannon Willoughby (Principal Investigator)

                                 Chris Organ (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Jennifer Green (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Brock LaMeres (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:       NRT 

                                 Div Of Graduate Education

Awards ID:            1735124

Award Amount:   $481,482

Start date:             September 1, 2017

End date:               August 31, 2020 (Estimated)


Graduate education in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) rigorously prepares students to innovate in their fields, yet it often does not include formal training in how to effectively communicate those innovations to others. To ensure we live in a just and vibrant society, it is vital that scientists are able to share their research findings with scientists in other fields, non-science experts, and the public. Using knowledge from the performing arts, this project will implement a novel pilot training program to teach oral communication to STEM graduate students, facilitating a deeper understanding of communication and providing practice in public speaking, improvisational techniques, and reading body language. This National Science Foundation Research Traineeship award in the Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) track to Montana State University-Bozeman will modernize STEM graduate education by pinpointing aspects of oral communication training that positively impact students' abilities to communicate orally to a wide variety of audiences, and increase the public's understanding of and engagement with science. Three recruited cohorts of eight STEM graduate students will practice and refine their oral communication skills by creating podcasts and speaking at community events in which they explain their research to the public. The team working on this project includes domain experts in physics, biology, mathematics, and engineering, as well as experts in public speaking, acting, education research, and library sciences. This broad expertise will ensure that disciplinarily diverse STEM students are recruited into the program, providing interdisciplinary perspectives and instruction and facilitating the success of this pilot graduate training program. 

This research will investigate whether targeted intervention in oral communication skills for STEM graduate students improves their ability to effectively convey their research to a broad audience. The project will use formative, summative, and longitudinal assessments to determine how various portions of the intervention are successful in developing students' oral communication skills in the following realms: avoiding the use of jargon, public speaking skills, and non-verbal delivery skills. Assessment data for year-long longitudinal studies of each cohort will include survey data related to three areas of oral communication, self-reports from students, and interviews with students and their mentors. To assess competencies such as reducing jargon for communicating with the public, this project will create, modify and use rubrics for effective public speaking. Pre- and post-intervention data will be compared among students and cohorts to determine the effects of each aspect of the training. Results and successes will be shared nationwide with other STEM experts at domain-specific conferences as well as at American Association for the Advancement of Sciences National Conferences. 

The NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program is designed to encourage the development and implementation of bold, new, potentially transformative models for STEM graduate education training. The Innovations in Graduate Education Track is dedicated solely to piloting, testing, and evaluating novel, innovative, and potentially transformative approaches to graduate education.

 Link to Program Website & Application

Designing a Middle Grades Spatial Skills Curriculum

Investigator(s):    Nick Lux (Principal Investigator)

                                 Bryce Hughes (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Shannon Willoughby (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Brock LaMeres (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:       DRK12 

                                 Div Of Research on Learning

Awards ID:            1720801

Award Amount:   $445,499

Start date:             July 1, 2017

End date:               June 30, 2020 (Estimated)


The ability to make spatial judgements and visualize has been shown to be a strong indicator of students' future success in STEM-related courses. The project is innovative because it uses a widely available gaming environment, Minecraft, to examine spatial reasoning. Finding learning experiences which support students' spatial reasoning in an authentic and engaging way is a challenge in the field. This project will create a portable training system that can be easily deployed in middle grades (5th - 7th grade) as a prototype for increasing students' spatial reasoning skills. The project will study gender differences in spatial reasoning and examine how learning experiences can be designed to develop spatial skills using Minecraft as a platform. The resources will incorporate hands-on learning and engage students in building virtual structures using spatial reasoning. The curriculum materials are being designed to be useful in other middle grades contexts. The Discovery Research K-12 program (DRK-12) seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools (RMTs). Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

The study is a design and development study that will design four training modules intended to improve spatial reasoning in the following areas: rotation, mental slicing, 2D to 3D transformation and perspective taking. The research questions are: (1) Does a Minecraft-based intervention that targets specific spatial reasoning tasks improve middle grade learners' spatial ability? (2) Does spatial skills growth differ by gender? The experimental design will compare the influence of the virtual spatial learning environment alone vs. the use of design challenges designed specifically for the spatial skills. The data collected will include assessments of spatial reasoning and feedback from teachers' who use the materials. The spatial skills measures will be administered as a pre-test, post-test, and six-month follow-up assessment to measure long term effects.


Improving the Pipeline for Rural and American Indian Students Entering Computer Science Via Storytelling

Investigator(s):    Brittany Fasy (Principal Investigator)

                                 Stacey Hancock (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Sweeney Windchief (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Roger Fischer (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Barbara Komlos (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                Mike Wittie (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:       iTEST 

                                 Div Of Research on Learning

Awards ID:            1657553

Award Amount:   $1,166,000

Start date:             August 1, 2017

End date:               July 31, 2020 (Estimated)


This project will advance efforts of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program to better understand and promote practices that increase students' motivations and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). The project will develop and research storytelling as a culturally responsive way to engage middle school Native American and rural Montana students in learning computer science and computing skills. Instead of creating a new curriculum, the project will infuse computer science across the curriculum, which will help students understand that computing skills are relevant across disciplines and are important for a wide variety of professions in the workforce. The project will use Alice, an object-based educational programming environment, that has been successful by encouraging storytelling in engaging middle school students and others who are not normally exposed to programming. Using Alice, students can tell stories by placing objects in virtual worlds they have created, and then they can program by dragging and dropping tiles that represent logical structures. By integrating these computational skills, without multiplying the number of topics to be taught, the project will promote a more diverse and comprehensive understanding of the opportunities available to students with an ability to think computationally. The project will develop resources for teachers to meet the requirements of Montana's Indian Education for All (IEFA) Act, which was mandated by the state legislature in 1999 and remains a difficult requirement for many middle school teachers to incorporate in their classrooms. The project will serve over 300 students when piloting curriculum materials and will engage 50 teachers in professional development workshops on the integration of computer science and computational thinking across middle school curriculum using a storytelling approach.

The project will use a culturally responsive approach to infuse the use of storytelling (using Alice) in the curriculum, guided by Tribal Critical Theory (TribCrit), which maintains that cultural knowledge and academic knowledge are not mutually exclusive but complement each other. The project tools, which will enable middle school teachers to integrate computer science and computational thinking throughout the curriculum, will be developed using a research-driven, iterative way to be culturally responsive to the communities served. Project research will address two complementary research questions: (1) Do storytelling and storymaking serve as effective means for engaging middle-school students in computer science?; and (2) Does the integration of computing skills into the core middle-school curriculum increase instruction and student learning of these skills? In addition, the project will document the processes and evaluate the effectiveness of the TribCrit culturally responsive approach taken in integrating computer science and computational thinking into the middle school curriculum. A mixed-method approach will be used in the research, including focus groups, small group instructional diagnosis, surveys, and pre/post measures of computational thinking/computer science knowledge. Project results will be disseminated through professional journals and conference presentations. Selected student-created artifacts (i.e., Alice virtual worlds and stories) will be presented in Montana museums.


The Formation of Undergraduate Engineers as Engineering Leaders

Investigator(s):    William Schell (Principal Investigator)

                                 Bryce Hughes (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:       EEC 

                                 Div Of Engineering Education and Centers

Awards ID:            1664231

Award Amount:   $298,159

Start date:             June 1, 2017

End date:               May 31, 2020 (Estimated)


Today, leaders of industry and government are calling for increasing numbers of engineering graduates to maintain the nation's economic competitiveness. However, the expected positive impact from increasing the number of engineering graduates will be limited, unless the full capabilities of these graduates are harnessed. Specifically, solving today's complex challenges will require cooperation among experts from many fields. In order for these collaborations to be successful they must harness the diverse capabilities of members of these groups. For that to happen, practicing engineers must exercise technical leadership. Therefore, undergraduate engineering students need to learn how to be effective leaders during their formation as engineers. Unfortunately, engineering educators do not currently have sufficient understanding of how engineering students develop into leaders. This project seeks to improve our understanding of the role leadership plays in the process of becoming an engineer and how to develop an engineering identity in undergraduate engineering students. The project proposes that seeing oneself as an engineering leader requires both the development of an engineering identity in combination with the development of a leadership identity. This project investigates the process of becoming an engineering leader given the central role identity plays in learning. By understanding the relationship between a leadership identity and an engineering identity, this work will provide a foundation for improving the leadership skills of undergraduate engineers during their time in college using cross-ethnic notions of leadership to serve a diverse student body.

Current approaches in engineering education to develop leadership skills in engineers do little to understand how leadership fits into the broader picture of the heterogeneous nature of engineering work, or the role leadership plays in the formation of an engineering identity. This project seeks to address this gap through a sequential, mixed-methods study resulting in development of a grounded theory of engineering leadership for undergraduate engineering students. The study will answer three research questions: 1) How does leadership identity in engineering students compare to those in other fields? 2) What is the relationship between leadership identity and engineering identity? 3) How do engineering undergraduates define engineering leadership and develop a sense of engineering leadership identity? This work recognizes that formation of engineers is fundamentally an identity development process. This project combines two models: Lave and Wenger's communities of practice model to understand development of an engineering identity and Komives, et al.'s Leadership Identity Model to understanding how engineering students cultivate a self-concept as a leader. Using these two models, this project seeks to understand how the separate components of engineering and leadership identity converge in the development of a combined engineering leadership identity among undergraduate students. Informed by an analysis of national data, a grounded theory approach will lead to an explanatory model of engineering leadership identity development. As an initial application of the model a series of educational interventions will developed and tested, enabling engineering educators to more effectively train engineering students in leadership. 


Research Initiation: Engineering a Culture of Engagement

Investigator(s):    Brock LaMeres (Principal Investigator)

                                 Jessie Smith (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:       EEC 

                                 Div Of Engineering Education and Centers

Awards ID:            1544147

Award Amount:   $150,000

Start date:             January 1, 2016

End date:               December 31, 2017 (Estimated)


This project aims to change the value system of college students to view engineering as a profession that serves the public good. It has been shown that underrepresented minorities, especially women and first generation college students gravitate toward professions that are viewed as serving their communities and helping others. While engineering certainly does serve public good, the common perception of the engineering profession is one that promotes self-oriented values such as wealth and personal success. This perception has a far reaching impact when trying to understand how students choose to become engineers, limiting the number of incoming college students that see engineering as a viable career. It also decreases the motivation of existing students to persist to graduation once in a degree program. And ultimately, it limits the number of underrepresented minorities that choose to stay in the engineering profession once in the workforce. By changing the culture surrounding engineering to one that promotes how engineering serves the public good, a larger and more diverse engineering workforce can be formed. In this project the research team focuses on a specific cultural phenomenon in which existing engineering students have less concern over time about how important it is that engineering serves the public good. This research explores the unique approach of "adding value" to engineering through targeted interventions to reverse the phenomenon of disengagement to create a culture that views engineering as a profession that helps others.

The overall objective of this project is to initiate boundary-spanning research on how to transform a culture of disengagement into a culture of engagement that ultimately enhances the professional formation of engineers. This research will produce original data to understand why engineering students show less and less concern over time for how engineering contributes to public welfare. This project is the first to initiate a comprehensive research project specifically on Utility Value Theory with the long-term goal of changing the value system surrounding engineering to one that has prosocial, communal value. Creating a culture that considers engineering as a profession that serves the public good will attract a diverse population to engineering, fostering increased innovation for the next century. To accomplish the primary project objective, this project has two.


Research Initiation: Effectively Integrating Sustainability within an Engineering Program

Investigator(s):   Paul Gannon (Principal Investigator)

                                 Carolyn Plumb  (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Ryan Anderson (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:     EEC
                               Div Of Engineering Education and Centers

Award ID:            1544174

Award Amount: $150,000

Start Date:          January 1, 2016

End Date:            December 31, 2017 (Estimated)


The engineering curriculum typically focuses exclusively on the technical aspects of the engineering profession. This technical emphasis alone can be a barrier for students to enter engineering. Furthermore, students receiving only technical preparation are less able to approach complex problems involving multiple perspectives, e.g. ethics, economics, social justice, etc. Sustainability is a fundamentally complex issue that covers many of these additional perspectives. Thus, topics in sustainable energy engineering, such as hydraulic fracture oil well stimulation (fracking), can be used to not only teach technical engineering concepts but also expose students to broader issues. By considering these complex engineering problems more holistically, students from a range of diverse backgrounds (particularly women and Native Americans) will more likely enter and remain in engineering. These students will then be better prepared to address the major challenges facing society. This project is initiating research into how best to integrate these sustainability topics throughout the curriculum to maximize these benefits in engineering education. To spread successful elements, the research team is facilitating institutionally-sponsored effective teaching and sustainability workshops for engineering faculty as well as K-12 STEM teachers. More broadly, the results will increase awareness of the engineering profession and its association with issues in sustainability.

The overall research aim is to improve the professional formation (recruitment, retention, and preparation) of diverse engineering students by integrating sustainability within engineering education programs. This research is studying the effectiveness of integration approaches within different required and elective undergraduate engineering courses, as well as within engineering faculty development and outreach activities. Two basic questions are being addressed related to the integration methods: (1) does it work? and (2) what are the barriers? Framing the proposed research are theoretical models describing student learning styles; cognitive, social and professional development; sustainability literacy; as well as the ontology of and attitudes toward engineering. These aims are being accomplished by leveraging existing resources within the Chemical Engineering program at Montana State University: a recently-tenured engineering faculty member (PI); two unique engineering elective courses including a large, entry-level "energy and sustainability" university-core science course aimed at non-STEM majors, and a smaller upper-level engineering elective course focused on "sustainable energy"; a pre-tenure engineering faculty collaborator (Co-PI) who instructs a large required engineering course (fluid mechanics); an established educational psychologist (Co-PI) experienced with theoretical frameworks, assessment, and data collection and analysis; and, ongoing outreach activities including engineering student presentations to local 4th grade classrooms and workshops for both MSU engineering faculty and K-12 teachers on Native American reservations. The PIs are systematically investigating the integration of contemporary sustainability issues within the three undergraduate engineering courses and various workshop and outreach activities. Ad hoc interdisciplinary teams of professionals within academia and industry are being established to grow engineering education research capacity and help align future research directions with industry needs. Validated and/or adapted assessment instruments and analyses of candid research participant comments will provide rich quantitative and qualitative data sets from unique research participant cohorts. Periodic assessment of participant cohorts and control groups is being conducted to determine legacy impacts, and results will help inform future research and innovation in engineering education.


Promoting the Development of Metacognition and Combating Robust Misconceptions in a Gateway STEM Course Using an Intelligent Web-based Homework System

 Investigator(s):    James Becker (Principal Investigator)

                                 Katharine Polasek (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Rockford Ross       (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:       DUE

                                 Division Of Undergraduate Education

Award ID:              1504880

Award Amount:    $249,724

Start date:             June 15, 2015

End date:               May 31, 2017(Estimate)


To meet the current and projected needs of industry for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professionals, significant efforts to recruit students into STEM fields continue across the nation. Once recruited into a STEM field, retention is of paramount importance. Examinations of the retention issue have identified key gateway courses as areas in which many students are lost from STEM fields. Failure and withdrawal rates in such courses often exceed 30% and issues related to inadequate metacognitive skill and self-regulated learning among struggling students appear to be key contributors to attrition. This project is exploring cost-effective and transferable means to foster metacognitive skill development among STEM majors in a key gateway engineering course so students become self-regulated learners and progress successfully not only through the gateway course, but through the entire curriculum.

Toward this end, an "intelligent" web-based platform is being developed and deployed in an electric circuit analysis course at two institutions. The system is being designed to identify knowledge deficits of a student and to deliver an individualized experience for each user according to their current level of mastery. The web-based approach ensures the interventions will be scalable and transferable and their grounding in established theories from cognitive science suggests they will be effective and broadly applicable. Unique within the system are features which foster self-reflection on the part of the user with the promise of enhancing metacognitive skill and the correction of common misconceptions. Rigorous assessment and evaluation measures are in place to quantify the project's effectiveness.


Design and Development Research: Deploying Adaptive Learning Environments to overcome Background Deficiencies and Facilitate Mastery of Computer Engineering Content

Investigator(s):    Brock LaMeres (Principal Investigator)

                                 Carolyn Plumb (Co-Principal Investigator)

                                 Mark Jacobson (Co-Principal Investigator)

National Science Foundation

NSF Program:      DUE

                                Division Of Undergraduate Education

Award ID:             1432373

Award Amount:   $298,102

Start Date:            January 1, 2015

End Date:              December 21, 2017 (Estimated)


Many students who intend to major in computer engineering do not persist through the introductory sequence of digital logic courses that are part of every accredited computer engineering program in the U.S. These students often lack the necessary prerequisite knowledge due to their varied backgrounds and incoming preparedness levels. This problem is compounded by the large class sizes of introductory college courses, which make it difficult to accommodate the background knowledge and the skills of individual students. Additionally, an e-learning environment has the potential to reach a broad audience through remote delivery, thus further increasing the impact of this approach. This enables community colleges and 4-year universities to move toward a true two-plus-two transfer program by allowing students to complete lower-level computer engineering courses remotely before transferring. 

The adaptive learning materials in this project will be developed for use in an introductory digital circuits course and a logic design course. Both of these courses contain laboratory components that will also be addressed by this work. The materials will be developed as self-contained learning modules that can be used at different colleges with varying schedules (e.g., semester vs. quarter). The materials will consist of a unified, adaptive learning environment that can be implemented using any course management system (e.g., Moodle, Desire2Learn, Blackboard) to eliminate the need for proprietary software. An accompanying lab kit will facilitate hands-on learning in a low-cost, portable form factor to facilitate remote delivery and eliminate the financial barrier of offering a meaningful laboratory experience. The materials will be tested at a diverse set of institutions: Montana State University, a Ph.D. granting, research active university, MSU-Billings, a 4-year non-research university, Flathead Valley Community Colleges, the largest 2-year community college in Montana, and Salish Kootenai College, a Tribal College proving both 2-year and 4-year degrees for Native Americans. This broad range of participants will allow the team to assess the effectiveness of the adaptive learning materials while simultaneously considering the relationship between student background and the student learning experience. 

Both quantitative and qualitative measures will be used to assess the adaptive learning modules. Direct measures will be collected on student performance, including the number of ungraded quiz attempts within an adaptive module, end of module exam scores, time required to complete a module, and time spent at each level of difficulty within a module. Surveys will be used to collect student satisfaction with the adaptive learning environment that will include feedback on their impression of content difficulty, workload compared to other courses of the same credit load, and their sense of how well the material was personalized to their needs. Student demographic information will be collected including gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, ACT scores and college credits obtained. This information will be used to understand how different groups use and benefit from the course materials. Focus groups will also be conducted with student participants at Michigan State University in order to collect qualitative data on student learning and attitudes toward the e-learning system. Phone interviews will be conducted with students from the other participating institutions. The interim findings from this assessment will be used as feedback to enhance the adaptive learning system in order to accommodate a broader range of participants.