Category Archives: research

Reflection at ASEE 2016

Reflection was a cross-cutting thread again at the 2016 ASEE annual conference, as illustrated by the selection of papers below. The first three papers are work done by members of CPREE. As illustrated by the additional papers, there is broad interest in reflection in engineering education.

Research Brief: “Engineering Education Meets Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): Exploring How the Work on “Probes” can Guide the Design of Reflection Activities

By: Brook Sattler, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinator

In this paper, we bridge the gap between the fields of human-computer interaction (HCI) and engineering education by exploring the work on “probes.” Specifically, we explore how probes have the potential to support reflection.

“Probes are small collections of artifacts accompanied by open-ended questions and evocative tasks to which participants respond over time” (p. 1). Probes are artifacts that support people in thinking about something specific and provide designers/researchers with inspiration for design.

In this paper, we offer examples of various probes in the field of HCI, such as packets with postcards, maps, disposable cameras, photo albums, and a media diary. For example, in a foundation work on probes, Gaver and colleagues (1999) used these probes to ask the elderly various questions about their life. Initially, the probes were meant to provided the researchers with data, but it was noticed that the probes also provided the research participants with an opportunity to reflect:

“What we learned about the elders is only half the story, however. The other half is what the elders learned from the probes. They provoked the groups to think about the roles they play and the pleasures they experience, hinting to them that our designs might suggest new roles and experiences. In the end, the probes helped establish a conversation with the groups, one that has continued throughout the project.” (Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti, 1999, p. 22)…(italics added for emphasis)

In bringing the work on probes to engineering education, our goal was to encourage the community to think more broadly about how we support reflection.


Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Cultural Probes, Interactions, January + February, 21-29.

Orand, M., Sattler, B., Turns, J. A., & Thomas, L. D. (2015). Engineering Education Meets Human–Computer Interaction (HCI): Exploring How the Work on “Probes” can Guide the Design of Reflection Activities. In Proceedings of the 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Seattle, WA.

Research Brief: Trends in Reflection

By: Lauren Sepp, UW Graduate Student, Human Centered Design & Engineering

Here at the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching (CELT), we are always interested in the topic of reflection, and have been working to uncover more information about the trends of reflection in general.  A current project is focused on examining the trends of reflection in the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) conference publications.  Our question is, how much explicit, named attention has reflection received in engineering education scholarship and how do we interpret these results?

Our initial approach examined the explicit references to reflection in the ASEE conference papers since its inception by manually sorting through the papers for words relating to reflection.  The resulting trend is quite impressive.  Since 1996, there has been a steady upward growth of papers mentioning reflection.  In 1996, only 6 papers mentioned reflection whereas in 2014, over 200 papers mentioned reflection to varying degrees.  Some papers mention reflection briefly as they explain how students were asked to write reflective essays, where other papers explicitly call out and highlight the importance of reflection in engineering education and furthermore link its importance to transforming students. “Reflective practices are one method for transforming students and helping them to become more open to taking challenges and integrating them into new applications.” [1] Whether the papers make bold statements regarding the effectiveness of reflection, or simply mention small reflective activities, the broad acknowledgement of reflection is a tell-tale sign that more educators are recognizing its importance. We are excited to present the results of these findings at the ASEE Annual Conference next month.

Figure 1 - Number of  ASEE Conference Papers Mentioning Reflection
Figure 1 – Number of ASEE Conference Papers Mentioning Reflection


The Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education (CPREE) is partnered  with other educators to majorly contribute to the conversation on reflection – we want to bring to light the importance of reflection as a tool to improve student educative experiences among other things.   As we collect reflective activities and practices across our 12 unique campuses, we have the privilege to sit in the front row, watching how reflection is changing the face of engineering programs.


[1] T. R. Forin, “A Personal Account on Implementing Reflective Practices,” in American Society for Engineering Education, Indianapolis, 2014.

A review of “The Structure Trap”

By: Brook Sattler, PhD and Lauren Thomas, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinators

Using a qualitative methods approach, Boswell explored students negative reactions to structured reflections on a service-learning trip. In the background chapter, Boswell provides an extensive review of the reflection literature, generally and then more specific with respect to service-learning. In the empirical part of her dissertation, Boswell focuses on students’ reactions to structured reflection activities. After a day of service, students engaged in conversation around a campfire. During these conversations, there was a purposeful stop and reflect time with activities. Her findings suggested that these structured reflection activities detracted from students’ organic engagement with reflection.

Tips for educators presented in this work:

  • Think about stakeholder’s roles. In the literature review chapter, Boswell provides an interesting discussion of the role educators and students play in reflection activities. She notes that the educator role shifts from one of authority figure to one of coaching, facilitating, and advising. Students should take more control of the situation and depend less on educators. The relationship between the educator and students is defined by mutual interdependence; students must shift from being “passive recipient[s] of knowledge to active creator[s] of learning” (p. 23). Such changes have significant pedagogical implications for the ways in which educators configure a class and how educators interact with students.
  • Understand the difference between reflective thinking and reflection activities. She notes in her literature review (and returns to this idea through the dissertation), that a significant confusion related to reflection is between the action and a structured learning activity– “Because reflection is both a cognitive process and a structured learning activity there is a certain amount of ambiguity about the term (Hatcher and Bringle, 1997)” (p. 24).
  • Be aware of things that contribute to reflection structure traps. Based on her findings, she suggests that there are four things that contribute to making reflection feel forced– “the structure trap”: “too narrow or too general; when transitions feel abrupt and interrupt informal reflection already occurring; when students feel put on the spot; and when they are not individually prepared and/or motivated to reflect” (p. 118).

Questions or challenges presented in this work:

  • Be aware of how scholars talk about reflection. When writing about reflection, most scholars first talk about Dewey, Kolb, and

    Schön. While scholars introduce these theorists, the language of these theorists doesn’t map to what scholars use. For example, Dewey uses the language of making meaning of experiences (e.g., fragmentation and continuity of experiences). In the end, it’s important to note that there are some assumptions (or discourse community assumptions) that are connected to using these foundational theorists.

  • Think about the disconnect of her findings to realities in teaching. From her account, reflection is a profound component of learning. However, if reflection is such a profound component of learning, we can question why reflection is silenced is most other learning experiences?


Boswell, L. (2010). The Structure Trap. Students’ Perceptions of Reflection on a Co-curricular Immersion Service-Learning Trip.   (Doctoral dissertation). Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA.

Reflective Learning Prepares Students for the ‘Real World’

by  Elizabeth Lowry, The Graduate School, University of Washington

The concept of reflective learning may spark some initial apprehension on the part of educators and students. But once they try it, they quickly see that it works, according to research and widespread practice.

Students – in fields from engineering to dance – deepen and strengthen their learning when they contemplate the material they have just learned to find its meaning and connections to past courses, lessons or experiences. In other words, reflection helps students connect the dots.

Learning through reflection in college prepares students for the “real world” after graduation.

“Employers are looking for students who are able to retain and make connections across contexts,” said Cindy Atman, director for the UW Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching and professor in Human Centered Design & Engineering.

“No matter how engaging and authentic the context that we as educators teach in, we cannot predict and model every situation that our students would need to demonstrate their knowledge. Reflecting on new information and making connections to prior learning, and diverse contexts is a critically important skill for the 21st century workforce.”

Reflection can support student learning – in any field of study, according to Atman and Betsy Cooper, divisional dean of arts in the College of Arts & Sciences and professor in Dance. Atman and Cooper will give the keynote presentation at 3 p.m., Tuesday, April 14, during the UW Teaching and Learning Symposium in the HUB Ballroom. The symposium begins at 2 p.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m., with the keynote taking place between the two poster sessions.

“Some of the benefits are that students become more meta-cognitive in their approach to learning, moving from novice to expert at an accelerated pace,” Cooper said. “Students become more engaged in their learning as they connect experiences across learning domains. And educators become more responsive.”

The symposium will highlight some of the UW’s most innovative research and practices in teaching and learning as more than 80 faculty, staff, and students from nearly 40 departments and units across all three UW campuses present 42 posters that detail their research methods, results and implications. Interim Provost Gerald J. Baldasty will give the welcoming remarks. Poster presentations range from the impact of active learning spaces on student learning to incorporating art into assignments in social science courses to shortening doctoral students’ time-to-degree by providing writing support.

Hosted by the UW Center for Teaching and Learning, the symposium is open to the entire University, and no reservations are required.

Atman and Jennifer Turns, professor in Human Centered Design & Engineering, direct a consortium comprised of 12 campuses across the country to implement reflection in engineering classrooms. Funded by a grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education is interviewing educators about the reflection activities they use with engineering students. These activities include short, in-class reflection activities on how students used their day and student portfolios. Another form of reflection is an “exam wrapper,” in which students reflect on how they prepared for exams and how they performed. Then, students identify strategies to improve. The center staff will present a poster at the symposium with a sampling of reflection activities that local engineering educators are using, along with the rationale and benefits.

In the generative and performing arts, the most common means of reflective practice occurs through critique, Cooper noted. “This can mean self-critique, instructor or peer. It is common that all three are interwoven in a process,” she said. Through repetition and revision, based on the critique, an artist refines his or her technique and expressivity.

Other reflection methods in the arts include journaling, reflective essays on class progress and reflective essays on a portfolio. By establishing goal statements at the beginning of a dance course, Cooper’s students can create strategies to meet those goals, as well as revisit and revise the goals throughout the quarter.

The benefits of reflective learning extend throughout students’ professional lives as they can incorporate reflection into their individual work strategies and practices.

“Reflective practice can be a potent means for continued growth, and an antidote to burnout,” Cooper said.


View the original post here:

View Dr. Atman’s slides from her keynote address here: Using Reflection to Support Student Learning

Engineering Education – Past and Present

Engineering has no doubt, progressed in the last 150 years. The commercial airplane, personal automobile, and the computer are some of the marvels that engineers have produced. Engineering pedagogy and curriculum have unquestionably changed as well. I recently skimmed through a book written in 1918 by Charles Riborg Mann on the subject of engineering education, highlighting the present conditions, current problems, and suggested solutions for engineering education. Among the problems, Mann lists admission, time constraints, course content, testing and grading, and shop work as main sections for discussion. As we enter 2015, we continue to see the same repeated discussions as 100 years prior. [1]

In the compilation, Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century published by the National Academy of Engineering, a discussion ensues about the outlook of engineering education. In a section entitled, “Pursue Student-Centered Education,” it is stated that “one should address how students learn as well as what they learn in order to ensure that student learning outcomes focus on the performance characteristics needed in future engineers. Two major tasks define this focus: (1) better alignment of engineering curricula and tpic_engineering_degreehe nature of academic experiences with the challenges and opportunities graduates will face in the workplace and (2) better alignment of faculty skill sets with those needed to deliver the desired curriculum in light of the different learning styles of students.” [2]

It is a continual struggle to define what the “best” approach to educating engineers is. Will that come with improved curriculum? Better grading? Or does the key lie in how we assist students in drawing meaning and significance from their work thus motivating them to continue to pursue engineering with excellence? We believe that reflection plays a vital role in helping students to draw significance and understanding from their rigorous studies.

Even as we continually make strides towards improving engineering education, we will still ask similar questions as Professor Mann in 1919, “Do we need fewer or more schools? Is the curriculum too long or too short? Should the engineering school be made a graduate professional school? What are the present demands of science, of industry, and of education? How well are the schools meeting these demands? What changes, if any, seem desirable?” [1]

Lauren Sepp is a graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is also a  research assistant for CPREE. (
[1] Mann, Charles Riborg. “A study of engineering education.” Bulletin 11 (1918).
[2] Phase, I. I. Educating the Engineer of 2020:: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. National Academies Press, 2005.

Designing for Slowness

The Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems (CHI) is an annual event where many researchers in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) meet to present novel findings and various studies. In 2014, several awards for Best Paper were distributed. One award was given for a paper entitled, Designing for Slowness, Anticipation, and Re-visitation: A Long Term Field Study of the Photobox. [1] This paper is an interesting study in which researchers placed wooden boxes containing computers and a printer in participants’ homes. These boxes had access to each participant’s Flickr archives, and would randomly select 4-5 photos from participants’ digital photo archives to print out each month at unspecified intervals. The study prompted an investigation into the ways in which individuals use the physical artifacts of photos to reflect on, and revisit experiences or periods of time that were previously captured and stored in their digital Flickr archive.

The study ultimately found that:

“Experiences of living with slow technology provoked participants to broadly reflect on the role of technology in their everyday lives. The Photobox was ultimately successful at opening up new experiences for participants with their photo collections, and in some cases, older photo curation processes emerged.” [1]

In our world today, we are inundated by the latest technologies, and digital methods which help to organize our lives. Personal planners with worn and stained pages are rarely seen and have rather been replaced by digital calendars that alert us every time an item is due. Our music collections are no longer frustrated by the scratched CD’s or damaged cassette tapes piled in our car’s center console, they are instead crammed into Gigabytes on our iPods and smartphones.  Similarly, the number of pictures that we store on our telephones and computers has grown to an enormous size. This Photobox study is an interesting process of slowing technology down and taking a moment to revert to the physical artifacts of photographs.

The process of slowing technology down is a prime opportunity for reflection. Each participant in the study was reminded of events past as photographs arrived at random intervals. As we dive into what reflection means for ourselves and for students, we can be reminded that the process of slowing technology and approaches down can be helpful. Could we promote slow reflection? Many students are used to instantaneous results or communication – gone are the days of waiting to receive a letter in the mail from a loved one – cherishing it and re-reading it until the ink smears and the letter tears. How could our approach to reflection be modified to rekindle the effects of slowed, meaningful, and purposeful reflection?

Technology has many benefits that enable incredible technology to be a part of our lives, but value remains in slowing life down to reflect on the past to inform and enrich our lives as they move ahead.

Lauren Sepp is a graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is also a  research assistant for CPREE. (

Link to Paper:
[1] W. Odom, A. Sellen, R. Banks, D. Kirk, T. Regan, M. Selby, J. Forlizzi and J. Zimmerman, “Designing for Slowness, Anticipation, and Re-visitation: A Long Term Field Study of the Photobox,” in CHI, Toronto, 2014.

Electrodermal Activity Reveals Student’s Sympathetic Nervous System Response During Class Time

Getting students to actively pay attention for an entire class and engage with material is a common challenge for teachers. Sometimes, material content isn’t stimulating for students, other times, students may be thinking about other things – whatever the reason, engaging classrooms is a continually evolving effort. One recently conducted study developed a wearable sensor that is capable of detecting electrodermal activity. Electrodermal activity can be correlated to the engagement of the sympathetic nervous system. The wearable sensor developed by MIT is helpful in conducting research on the sympathetic nervous system outside of laboratories and in the daily activities of its user.

“…the sympathetic nervous system stimulates increased metabolic output to deal with external challenges. As such, increased sympathetic activity (sympathetic arousal) elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating, as well as redirects blood from the intestinal reservoir toward skeletal muscles, lungs, heart, and brain in preparation for motor action.” [1]

In situ electrodermal



Figure 1. In Situ Electrodermal Activity Results [1]


This electrodermal activity monitor was tested in situ on a student who wore the sensor for 7 days. While the purpose of this study was to test the sensor’s capabilities, the outcome from the student was quite revealing in that, during his time in the classroom, his sympathetic nervous system was almost a flatline – similar to that of times when the subject was watching television. (See Figure 1) In other words, the student displayed barely any reaction or stimulation from classroom time as compared to other activities such as homework and lab time.

Although this data was collected from one individual whose learning styles and interests are unique, the data presented promotes an opportunity for educators to pause and consider the outcomes. The student receives more stimulation from doing chores than he did during class time. How can we engage students better during class time? How might reflection, change students’ attentiveness, stimulation, and reactions during class time?


Lauren Sepp is a graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is also a  research assistant for CPREE. (

[1] Poh, Ming-Zher, Nicholas C Swenson and Rosalind W Picard. “A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity.” IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering 57.5 (2010): 1-10.

[2] Herwig, Uwe, Tina Kaffenberger, Caroline Schell, Lutz Jancke, and Annette Bruhl. “Neural Activity Associated with Self-Reflection.” BMC Neuroscience 13.52 (2012). Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <>.

Research Brief: Integrating Reflection into Engineering Education

By: Drs. Brook Sattler and Lauren Thomas, CPREE multi-campus coordinators

Early in the development of the Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education (CPREE), it was apparent that a framework to understand reflection in the context of engineering education was necessary. The topic is frequently researched and published in other disciplines, such as medicine, teacher education, and therapy, but less frequently in engineering education.  The authors of “Integrating Reflection into Engineering Education” ( Turns et al., 2014) develop and present a framework for thinking about reflective practices, explore how it is situated in theory, and provide examples within engineering education. Also, Turns et al. (2014) confront some of the realistic challenges of supporting reflection in engineering education. The authors propose seven elements of reflection: experience, features, lens, meaning, action, intentional, and dialectical. The elements are drawn from existing reflection theory and related theoretical perspectives to provide a rich framework to understand reflection, particularly in engineering education (p. 3). The easy-to-use examples enable the reader to apply the seven elements and consider how reflection may work in their particular context, class, or activity. They also acknowledge that there are difficulties and concerns that may particularly resonate with engineers, as they encounter reflection within the discipline.

Tips for educators presented in this work:

  • Think of how you may have or are currently including reflection in your practice with students. Using the examples provided, there are ways in which our students reflect, with or without us, which we can influence on a regular basis.
  • Use this framework. This paper provides an accessible way to operationalize reflection in the context of engineering education. Once you have identified a practice that may explicitly be reflection, consider each of the seven elements. Also, keep in mind that there are not always right and wrong answers.
  • Acknowledge the difficulties. What are some ways in which reflection is difficult for you? Are you hesitant to engage students in reflection and why? These questions and concerns are valid, and certainly inform our approach to using reflection as an educational practice. Keep in mind, that reflection can be done on a very small scale and remain relevant to developing future engineers.

Questions or challenges presented in this work:

  • Some of the elements of reflection may be challenging to grasp! Many of the instructors and researchers that we have talked with have had challenges understanding parts of the framework particularly, lens and meaning. Which of the seven elements are challenging for you?
  • What examples of reflective activity are you using with students?

Turns, J., Sattler, B., Yasuhara, K., Borgford-Parnell, J., & Atman, C.J. (2014). Integrating Reflection into Engineering Education. In ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Retrieved from

Reflection makes sense: New initiative prompts engineering students to look back to go forward

University of Washington News and Information

Asking students to reflect on and learn from their educational experiences is crucial to academic and career successes. But bringing this element of reflection into teaching practices remains a significant challenge, especially in engineering education.

The University of Washington’s Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching has received a $4.4 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to develop and promote teaching practices that help undergraduate engineering students reflect on their experiences. The award establishes the Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education that focuses on first- and second-year undergraduates who want to be engineers, especially those from underrepresented populations. The goal is to enhance their ability to learn, help a greater percentage complete their degrees and ultimately foster a larger and better prepared engineering workforce that the global economy requires.

U of Washington

“We need to graduate engineers who are thinking broadly when they enter the working world and are capable of developing solutions for the challenges our society faces,” said Cindy Atman, director of the engineering center and a professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering.

The UW-led consortium will involve a group of 12 higher education institutions, including community colleges, four-year colleges and research universities. Organizers aim to involve nearly 250 educators across the 12 institutions and collect data from 18,000 student experiences. Each institution will get $200,000 over two academic years to fund a principal investigator and other colleagues to carry out the work. The tools and practices developed through this initiative will be brought to engineering programs nationwide.

Reflection – giving meaning to prior experiences and determining how that meaning will guide future actions – has long been recognized as important in higher education. Research has established a relationship between reflection and follow-through in academics, finding that small-scale challenges – such as a bad test score or a difficult homework assignment – can accumulate and influence a student’s decision to leave her or his engineering program.

“The one thing you can count on in education is that students will have challenging experiences they will need to reflect on,” said Jennifer Turns, a professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering and faculty affiliate with the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching. Turns is co-leading the new initiative at the UW.

“If you can get students to add an element of reflection that can bump them out of the ‘I don’t belong in engineering’ feeling at the micro-level, you might be able to change their macro-level decision to leave or stay in engineering,” Turns said.

Organizers will start by identifying the institutions in the consortium and begin working with each one to see how educators currently use reflection practices in their teaching. In the following years, consortium leaders will create documents that capture how instructors at each participating school incorporate reflection into the classroom. Leaders will award grants to spearhead new projects that creatively bring reflection into classrooms and track the effects on learning and student retention.

University of Washington graduate students talk about their projects in class.

Project leaders expect the consortium’s work will be useful across all disciplines in higher education. The practice of taking a broader view of learning by emphasizing reflection is something that can benefit all students and their educators, regardless of the field.

“There is this really important sense-making process that has to happen, and we forget sometimes that students need help doing it,” Turns said. “When I ask students what surprised them in a specific learning situation, they get a chance to pause and think about what that surprise means. In the process, their blind spots get surfaced and sometimes mine do, too.”

The goal in choosing a range of schools is to tailor types of reflection practices to what students need at different institutions. For example, a student at a community college who is hoping to enroll in an engineering program likely has different needs than a second-year university student who is already taking engineering classes. Similarly, educators and advisers need the tools to encourage different types of reflection, depending on students’ needs.

“The project design tries to celebrate the local culture. Each educator has a kind of expertise that we want to reveal,” Atman said.


For more information, contact Atman at or 206-616-2171 and Turns at or 206-221-3650.

See the original press release at: