Modeling in Engineering: The Role of Representational Fluency in Students' Conceptual Understanding




Modeling abilities play an important role in engineering. The creation and use of representations is a central aspect of modeling, and students who are learning to model often use a variety of representations to express, test, revise, and communicate their own thinking. Consequently, model development often depends on representational fluency and the ability to translate between and within different representational forms.


This study investigates the role that representations and representational fluency play in conceptual understanding during a complex modeling task related to heat transfer.


This study involved 16 teams of 3 or 4 college students in a first-semester heat transfer course participating in a complex modeling task. The task of the student teams was to develop a model to predict the interface temperature and the sensation felt by human skin when touching a utensil made of a given material at a given temperature. Data sources included audio recordings of student teams, as well as student-generated artifacts.


The results show teams thinking about their model through multiple representations and through translations within and among representations. Students' early ways of thinking used a variety of interacting representations but were often unstable and involved incomplete notions of the system to be modeled. Model development involved increasing representational fluency as well as parallel and interacting progress along a variety of dimensions.


This study furthers the understanding of representational fluency in undergraduate engineering students in a heat transfer setting and how representational fluency contributes to conceptual and application understanding.