The research presented in this dissertation focuses on the model generation and modeling processes of student teams that participate in capstone, undergraduate engineering physical and virtual laboratory projects. The Heat Exchange Laboratory Project, the Ion Exchange Laboratory Project, and the Virtual Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) Laboratory Project provide the context for the studies. The structure of models is presented within the framework of scientific modeling, where scientific principles are connected to the modeled phenomenon through observed details termed specific conditions. Ethnographic studies of engineers provide elaboration of the scientific framework of models, adding engineering heuristics as viable structures for models and engineering objectives as viable specific conditions. The forms of models, the functions of models, and process of modeling further inform this theoretical framework.
This dissertation uses the theoretical framework to develop the methodology that is used to identify models, the form they appear in, and the function they serve through a fundamental unit termed a model component. Model components are identified in student laboratory notebooks from 29 teams from two years and in a sample audio transcript from
one team. Results show a sharp difference between the laboratory modes with respect to model generation. Student teams engaging in the virtual laboratory project engage in significantly more model generation activity, and produce a wider variety of model components than they do within the physical laboratory projects. Analysis of an audio recorded team shows rich opportunities for model generation, use, and revision in the virtual laboratory project.
The observed differences are explained, in part, through different affordances in the physical and virtual modes. The differences also address the differences in the instructional design choices made in these specific laboratory projects. The virtual mode affords additional time by artificially reducing the effort of data collection, but the instructional design of the Virtual CVD Laboratory Project provides students with a structure that encourages productive use of that time. The virtual laboratory project also allows for a scope that represents professional practice in ways that are untenable at the university. On the other hand, the physical mode emphasizes hands-on data collection skills, and the instructional design situates the bench scale experiments within the context of engineering problems addressed in practice. The research presented in this dissertation frames the affordances of each laboratory mode and instructional design as beneficial to the professional formation of undergraduate engineers.