Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering Education

First Advisor

Senay Purzer

Committee Member 1

Robin Adams

Committee Member 2

Monica Cardella

Committee Member 3

Ruth Streveler


Engineers are expected to solve problems that are ill-structured. These problems are presented with a lack of necessary information and allow for different ways of engaging with the problem; they are open-ended and involve multiple possible solutions with multiple means of evaluation. In order to allow maximum time for students to develop skills for solving such problems, undergraduate engineering programs can introduce such problems during the first year of students’ education, in the form of cornerstone design tasks. This provides students with more opportunities to develop their ability to engage with ill-structured problems, which are characteristic of engineering work. Researchers have documented variation within both the behavior and perceptions of students’ early experiences with design problems. General themes include novice-like design behavior, discomfort with lack of information, difficulty with problem scoping, and resistance to ambiguity. To build on these generalizations of students’ experiences, a more thorough understanding of the variation in how students experience this phenomenon of engaging with ill-structured problems is needed to design effective learning environments.