How do you know you’ve learned? Answering this question requires a “language of learning”—a way of talking about what it means to know, be able to do, or be as a professional—and an understanding of how and why this changes over time and through experiences as a learning trajectory. A language of learning helps learners self-assess their own progress, educators design and assess learning experiences, and leaders take action and shape the future of engineering education and engineering as a profession. Dr. Adams’ research seeks to empirically develop languages for learning in areas central to the practice of engineering— cross-disciplinarity and design—and the practice of engineering education. Her group, XRoads, conducts research at the “crossroads” where different perspectives connect, collide, and catalyze new ways of thinking.
Cross-disciplinary ways of thinking, acting, and being. Every day, engineers are confronted with complex and ill-structured challenges that cannot be addressed through a single lens or mindset. Grand “human” challenges require “cross-disciplinary” approaches for thinking, working, and innovating across differences (cultures, disciplines, and lived experiences). While multi-, inter-, and even transdisciplinarity are widely endorsed as critical engineering education goals, our understanding of a language of cross-disciplinary learning is very limited. What is it you learn? How? How would you know if you learned or could apply what you learned to new situations? How does this become a part of who you are and how you approach complex human-socialtechnical- environmental problems? Dr. Adams’ research seeks to build theories about learning and becoming “crossdisciplinary” in multiple contexts: engineering, design, cancer research (epigenomics), and engineering education. Her CAREER grant, a three-year longitudinal study, investigates how and why people become effective cross-disciplinary practitioners, drawing on critical incident, photo elicitation, and narrative methods to make visible what undergraduates, graduates, faculty and practicing engineers come to understand through their cross-disciplinary experiences. Dr. Adams has developed frameworks of cross-disciplinary learning (see figure), tools to assess cross-disciplinary problem formulation and collaboration capabilities, and novel methods for investigating how and what people learn through their experiences, and she is collaborating with faculty to form a “Cross-disciplinary Commons” to share approaches to cross-disciplinary teaching, learn from each other, and transfer new ideas for use in their own classrooms.
Engineering design learning trajectories and education for innovation. Dr. Adams has conducted in-depth studies of how freshman and senior engineers compare to practicing professional engineers that illustrate critical differences in the use of iterative design strategies, breadth and depth in framing and understanding the problem, and awareness of ambiguity and uncertainty. She integrates this work with research in diverse disciplines (such as engineering, architecture, product design, visual and performing arts, and computer science) to help create a language of design learning that characterizes learning progressions in what designers know, what they are able to do, and how they see themselves as design professionals. This research has been used to guide approaches to design curriculum (from P-12 to postgraduate as well as within and across disciplines) and professional development of design educators, to develop tools to measure changes in design learning over time, and to create the graduate-level course “Design Cognition and Learning.”
How does engineering education transformation happen? Drawing on cross-disciplinary and complex-systems methods, Dr. Adams seeks to both catalyze change and understand the process of engineering education transformation. She has developed novel ways to bring research “into the classroom,” such as using storytelling with engineering educators to build communities of practice and translating tools used for research into educational strategies that help learners talk about learning in ways that support reflective practice and identity development. She also uses multiple-perspective methodologies to critique and open up new ways of thinking about the aims and process of engineering education. In the course “History and Philosophy of Engineering Education,” she draws on philosophy and history to challenge and transform ways of thinking about engineering knowing and what it means to prepare engineers for the profession. Dr. Adams also uses her “language of learning” lens to study the process of engineering education transformation. She draws from multiple perspectives to investigate how engineering educators link their own work as researchers to their work as educators, how engineering faculty experience shifts in thinking around curriculum design, and how successful “changemakers” understand and talk about the process of educational transformation.