Learning Conceptual Knowledge in the Engineering Sciences: Overview and Future Research Directions


  • Ruth A. Streveler,

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Engineering Education Purdue University
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    • Ruth A. Streveler is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She holds a B.A. in Biology from Indiana University, a M.S. in Zoology from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Prior to coming to Purdue, she was the founding director of the Center for Engineering Education at the Colorado School of Mines. She has been a co-PI on several projects funded by the National Science Foundation and served a stint as acting director of the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education. She earned the 2006 and 2007 Helen Plants Awards for best non-traditional session at the Frontiers in Education Conference.

  • Thomas A. Litzinger,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Mechanical Engineering Pennsylvania State University
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    • Thomas A. Litzinger is director of the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education and a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Penn State, where he has been on the faculty since 1985. Prior to his appointment as Director of the Leonhard Center, he was the Penn State principal investigator and Coalition-PI for Student and Faculty Development for the ECSEL Coalition. His work in engineering education involves teaching and learning innovations, faculty development, curricular reform and assessment. In addition to his educational scholarship, he does research on the effects of fuel composition on performance and emissions of internal combustion engines, gas turbines and rockets. Prior to joining Penn State he completed his Ph.D. at Princeton, and he worked for General Electric for four years, during which time he completed a Master's degree at RPI through GE's Advanced Engineering Program.

  • Ronald L. Miller,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Chemical Engineering Colorado School of Mines
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    • Ronald L. Miller is professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Engineering Education at Colorado School of Mines. He earned degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Wyoming and Colorado School of Mines. Dr. Miller has received three university-wide teaching awards and has held a Jenni teaching fellowship at CSM. He has received grant awards for education research from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education FIPSE program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and has published widely in the areas of engineering education assessment, pedagogy, and curricular design.

  • Paul S. Steif

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Mechanical Engineering Carnegie-Mellon University
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    • Paul S. Steif is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He received a Sc.B. in engineering from Brown University (1979) and M.S. (1980) and Ph.D. (1982) degrees from Harvard University in applied mechanics. He has been active as a teacher and researcher in the field of engineering mechanics. In particular, Dr. Steif develops and implements new approaches and technologies to measure student understanding of engineering and to improve instruction.

School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, West Lafayette, IN, 47907; telephone: (+1) 765.496.9031; fax: (+1) 765.494.5819; e-mail: streveler@purdue.edu.

201 Hammond Building, University Park, PA 16802; telephone: (+1) 814.865.4015; fax: (+1) 814.865.4021; e-mail: TAL2@PSU.EDU.

Chemical Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, 80401; telephone: (+1) 303.273.3892; fax: (+1) 303.273.3730; e-mail: rlmiller@mines.edu.

Department of Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, PA, 15213; telephone: (+1) 412.268.3507; fax (+1): 412.268.3348; e-mail: steif@cmu.edu.


Learning conceptual knowledge in engineering science is a critical element in the development of competence and expertise in engineering. To date, however, research on conceptual learning in engineering science has been limited. Therefore, this article draws heavily on fundamental research by cognitive psychologists and applied research by science educators to provide a background on fundamental issues in the field and methods for assessing conceptual knowledge. Some of the most common conceptual difficulties from three domains: mechanics, thermal science and direct current electricity, are discussed to provide concrete examples of what students find difficult to learn. The article concludes with a discussion of possible sources of these difficulties, implications for instruction, and suggestions for future research.