In the modern undergraduate engineering curriculum, design projects — where students apply their technical knowledge and creativity to solving real-life challenges — are an important part of preparing students for future careers.

However, these design projects are often pre-chosen for pupils, and have little relevance to the students’ lives – leaving them less invested in the project and diminishing the potential benefits of design thinking.

It is this issue — what is called “framing agency,” or the ability for students to have choices when selecting a design project— that is the main focus of research for Vanessa Svihla, an assistant professor with appointments in The University of New Mexico’s Organization, Information & Learning Sciences (OILS) program and in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

For this idea, she is receiving a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. The $516,000 project, called “Framing and Reframing Agency in Making and Engineering (FRAME),” began on Jan. 1 and will be funded through 2022.

She says the ultimate goal of the project is to develop a framework that can be used as standard practice.

“I am developing research and tools to identify experiences that develop students’ framing agency,” Svihla said. “What I hope to have at the end are tools that faculty can use and implement to support their students. It’s important for faculty to have support because directing open-ended design projects can seem daunting. They may not know why one project fails and another succeeds.”

Svihla, a learning scientist who studies how people learn through designing, has worked closely with the School of Engineering (SOE) the last few years as part of an ongoing NSF grant called “FACETS: Formation of Accomplished Chemical Engineering for Transforming Society.” She is working with Abhaya Datye, Sang M. Han, Jamie Gomez, and Eva Chi, all from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The mission of that project is to transform engineering education through introducing design concepts early in the engineering curriculum, both to enhance the learning and relevance of the material and to get students used to design thinking.

She and Datye co-teach Chemical and Biological Engineering 101 (CBE), which focuses on designing. Svihla says elements from the FRAME project will be folded into the CBE curriculum, and there will be opportunities to work with other faculty who teach courses that include design projects.

Only a year and a half into the earlier grant, the related FACETS project is already making an impact. In 2016, the research group won Best Diversity Paper at the American Society for Engineering Education Conference, which focused on the unique strengths New Mexico students bring to their engineering coursework. Svihla found that first-generation college attendees were more likely to agree that designing is a learning process. 

Svihla, who has degrees in geology and science education, says that improving the way design is implemented into courses is important for learning outcomes. She said research has shown that it especially helps students keep in mind that not every project will have a perfect outcome and that there are often many possible answers.

“Failure is endemic in engineering,” she said. “Anytime you’re doing something new, there is going to be failure. Design thinking and framing agency help students get used to this idea, which will help them in their later careers as engineers and scientists.”

The NSF CAREER program is geared toward helping early career faculty get strong starts on their academic careers. The award is NSF’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the community. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

According to Svihla, receiving an NSF CAREER award not only gives her career a boost, but it draws attention to her area of study, which has received little attention in the past.

“This is a huge opportunity that so few people in engineering education have,” she said. “It will increase the visibility of the problem of not just solving problems, but of framing problems. For a while, studying this area felt fringe, but now it is getting more validation.”

In 2014, Svihla was named a National Academy of Education Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow, the first UNM researcher to win that award.