Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering Education

First Advisor

Matthew W. Ohland

Committee Chair

Matthew W. Ohland

Committee Member 1

Monica E. Cardella

Committee Member 2

Senay Purzer

Committee Member 3

Shawn D. Whiteman


For many students in engineering and engineering technology programs in the US, senior capstone design courses require students to form a team, define a problem, and find a feasible technical solution to address this problem. Students must integrate the knowledge and skills acquired during their studies at the college or university level. These truly integrative design activities do not have a single “correct” solution. Instead, there is an array of solutions, many of which could be used to achieve the final result. This ambiguity can cause students to experience anxiety during the projects.

This study examined the main topics: • To what extent is a social anxiety (measured as fear of negative evaluation) related to tolerance for ambiguity in senior engineering capstone courses? • How does exposure to ambiguity prior to and during capstone courses affect tolerance for ambiguity?

The study looked at the standard educational practices to see if they have unintended consequences, such a social anxiety in dealing with ambiguity. Those consequences are highly undesirable because they reduce students’ learning. It was hypothesized that the lecture-based approaches that are more common in the first three years of study would not prepare students for self-directed capstone courses because the students would rarely have experienced problem-based learning before.

The study used a quantitative approach and examined students’ perceptions of their tolerance for ambiguity, and social anxiety before and after their senior capstone design experience. A survey instrument was adapted to measure exposure to ambiguity, which was studied as a potential moderator of the relationship between social anxiety and tolerance for ambiguity.

The study indicated that social anxiety, as measured by fear of negative evaluation, does not play a major role in capstone courses. The second finding is that a single course, even if it was administered as a problem-based senior class, failed to increase students’ tolerance for ambiguity. Students with low tolerance have more problems with ambiguity, whereas students with high tolerance can more easily endure changes and find it easier to act in the absence of complete information. The third important finding was that exposure to ambiguity prior to capstone courses does affect tolerance for ambiguity while controlling for instructor and if exposure to ambiguity is included as a moderator. It was not in the scope of this study to explore the effect of instructor more deeply, but this provides a direction for future research, especially in this time of expanding implementation of project- and problem-based learning methods in technical curricula.