The NSF currently has open programs for Research in the Formation of Engineers. With the primary emphasis on:

  • Introductions to the profession at any age;
  • Acquisition of deep technical and professional skills, knowledge, and abilities in both formal and informal settings/domains;
  • Development of outlooks, perspectives, ways of thinking, knowing, and doing;
  • Development of identity as an engineer and its intersection with other identities; and
  • Acculturation to the profession, its standards, and norms.

Scaffolding Growth of Agency within Engineering Design is, in laymen terms, what and how we teach engineering design in order for students to master the empathetic connections necessary to confidently contribute to client and community. This is THE problem of education: How to weave together multiple knowledge structures into an empathetic scaffolding to most efficiently achieve mastery of personal agency?

The Structure/Framework/Scaffolding

Any effective structure must span a taxonomy of Spiral value Memes and associated knowledge structures. In short, competencies within the following general knowledge/value structures should be developed:

  1. Authority: A student is given authority and responsibility over a defined area contributing to an end client/community need.
  2. Legalistic: A student must thoroughly research and document the vocabulary, rules, and laws required to know where a new contribution could exist within the area of need (analogous to the introduction, literature review, and theory sections to a paper, report, or thesis).
  3. Performance: A student should show a level of understanding and ability to perform with the established techniques in the area. Then develop a heuristic/design/process to continually perform. This is the typical advanced goal and terminal end to a students learning.
  4. Community: A student needs to be connected to the broader community that needs the contribution. A connection/empathy to the end stakeholders and group cohort is needed to ensure the transition into the workforce and sustain resource flows.
  5. Systemic: Through repeated repetition of these levels, the student now understands the complexity of personal development. They now take ownership by contributing to furthering/continuously improving the system by developing their own scaffolded learning materials and demos for others to follow.

Moreover, a valid framework must map these to the complexities of the design environment — an inherently flexible heuristic driven environment. The design environment is structured to address the unknown-unknowns so commonly accounted in the design process. This necessitate a heuristic “zone defense” approach as opposed to algorithmic “man-on-man defense”. This zone approach is known as the Jigsaw classroom method. A list of the roles could include:

  1. Builder: Fabrication from the raw materials and components into the final product. A writeup of the builder role is here.
  2. Reporter: Communication on many levels what is happening and why. A writeup of the reporter role is here.
  3. Process “Pro”: Information guru who is experienced with the codes and standards within an area and adept at developing processes for executing them. A writeup of the process pro is here.
  4. Theorist: Theoretically minded and skilled with implementing and analyzing the physical arts through mathematics. A writeup of the theorist role is here.
  5. Liaison: Teamwork mastery polymath that can fill in improvise in the above roles and is aware to spot when the team is stuck in a paradigm or has unknowns building to a critical level. A writeup on the role of the liaison is here.

Here is a matrix intersecting the knowledge paradigms with these design team roles into a scaffold/framework that provides example learning modules within each intersection:

Authority (1) Legalistic (2) Performance (3) Community (4) Systemic (5)
Builder (B) Workspace Safety & basic operation Lean & multiple certification Facilitating team build process 5S/Kaizen lead fab developer
Reporter (R) Personal Labbook/webspace Technical writing & grammar Skilled in Persuasive writing & presenting Shared Webspace + forums & papers Lead Webspace com. manager
Pro (P) Library standard Information literacy Multiple heuristic code interpretation Community standards group Continuous Info improvement lead
Theorist (T) Textbook Most eng. courses Thesis delivery + improvisation Group tutor/mentor Tutor/area steward
Liaison (L) Teammates PMBOK Real resources and project delivery Multi-cycle Team stewardship Steward leadership pipe
Year Sophomore Junior Senior Grad 1 Grad 2


Notice how the levels of attainment naturally associate to years of collegiate education culminating in a masters degree. While the end goal is mastery within each of the Jigsaw role areas, time and resource constraints likely require specialization determined by the individual. I recently wrote about our ongoing shift towards a free-form Montessori-themed environment for research in the lab, the free-form Montessori environment allows natural load-leveling among these tasks and roles within a group. This is true not only for the research lab, but the classroom, and student club environments.

How to study efficacy of the framework/scaffold?

Each level of attainment corresponds to a different Spiral vMeme value set. Vocabulary and approach to structuring information changes within each of these levels. By simply surveying student written communications and how they are structuring the information, a distribution or weighting among the levels can be deduced. The goal of which being to continually increase the weightings of the distribution to the right.

The remaining question focuses on which roles to study through this progression that will add the most value to our immediate community given the limited available resources. The area of teamwork/leadership is well covered by nearly all disciplines. Theory is the focus of the traditional engineering curriculum. The Information role is related to the libraries and has potential, although is more difficult for traditional students to grasp without a work environment or relevant task. This leaves fabrication and communication. Coupling the two allows the communication development to be easily analyzed to asses progress along the fabrication spectrum.

WSU has a system for giving students personal wordpress webpages (similar spine format to this site). It is possible to use text analysis software to then gather data within each of the personal webpages and track the students as they move into collaborative information environments (such as this site), where it is still possible to track what changes a person makes and how they make them.

WSU’s recently developed Cougar LEAN (CLEAN) workbench is an example of an empathy-scaffolding workspace that will build to the upper levels of fabrication. Open questions remain though about whether constructing your own workspace offers advantages compared to granting of existing workspace or no space.

Where we are likely to see the real increase in personal agency, where things takeoff in non-linear fashion, is at the community-systemic levels. Students need to be a part of a high-performance system bigger than any of them alone. This system needs to sustain multiple development levels through multiple years of development. If we achieve this, the results of the study will be immediately obvious. Like a described in my TED-x talk and have seen in nearly every high-performance environment — we’ll know it’s working — the products will speak for themselves.