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  1. This paper describes the results from an ongoing project where hands-on models and associated activities are integrated throughout an undergraduate statics course with the goal of deepening students’ conceptual understanding, scaffolding spatial skills, and therefore developing representational competence with foundational concepts such as vectors, forces, moments, and free-body diagrams. Representational competence refers to the fluency with which a subject expert can move between different representations of a concept (e.g. mathematical, symbolic, graphical, 2D vs. 3D, pictorial) as appropriate for communication, reasoning, and problem solving. This study sought to identify the characteristics of modeling activities that make them effective for all learners. Student volunteers engaged in individual interviews in which they solved problems that included 2D diagrams, 3D models, and worked calculations. Participating students had prior experience with the models and related activity sheets earlier in the course. Data was collected at the end of the quarter and the activities emphasized conceptual understanding. Thematic analysis was used to develop codes and identify themes in students’ use of the models as it relates to developing representational competence. Students used the models in a variety of ways. They wrote directly on the models, touched and gestured with the model, adjusted components, and observed the model from multiple orientations. They added new elements and deconstructed the models to feel the force or imagine how measurements would be impacted if one parameter was changed while all others held constant. In interviews students made connections to previous courses as well as previous activities and experiences with the models. In addition to using the 3D models, participants also used more than one representation (e.g. symbolic or 2D diagram) to solve problems and communicate thinking. While the use of models and manipulatives is commonplace in mechanics instruction, this work seeks to provide more nuanced information about how students use these learning aids to develop and reinforce their own understanding of key concepts. The authors hope these findings will be useful for others interested in designing and refining hands-on mechanics activities toward specific learning goals. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 30, 2024
  2. This NSF-IUSE exploration and design project began in Fall 2018 and features cross-disciplinary collaboration between engineering, math, psychology, and math education faculty to develop learning activities with 3D-printed models for integral calculus and engineering statics. We are exploring how such models can scaffold spatial abilities and support learners’ development of conceptual understanding and representational competence. The project is addressing these questions through parallel work piloting model-based learning activities in the classroom and by investigating specific attributes of the activities in lab studies and focus groups. To date we have developed and piloted a mature suite of activities covering a variety of topics for both calculus and statics. After a year of classroom implementation and data collection at the institution where the curriculum was developed, the project team recruited math and engineering faculty from three other colleges to pilot the models starting Fall 2020. The goal of this expansion was to increase sample sizes and diversity for statistical analysis of classroom data and to learn about the experiences of faculty as they integrated the curriculum materials into their own courses. The original vision was for faculty to use the models in face-to-face instruction, but the transition to online modality in response to the COVID-19 pandemic forced a rapid pivot during this expansion that we reported on previously. Faculty participants who chose to continue with the project worked to incorporate the models in parallel with their respective efforts to adapt to online teaching. This poster focuses on the experiences of the participating math faculty. Ultimately these faculty taught online calculus courses both with and without the models from Fall 2020 through Spring 2022. We conducted pre and post participation interviews and report on their experiences. All participants reported their intention to continue to use the models beyond conclusion of the project and planned to try them in face-to-face instruction. The paper will discuss more details about the interview findings and conclude by making some recommendations for others who may be interested in exploring the use of hands-on models in Calculus instruction. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 30, 2024
  3. Mechanics instructors frequently employ hands-on learning with goals such as demonstrating physical phenomena, aiding visualization, addressing misconceptions, exposing students to “real-world” problems, and promoting an engaging classroom environment. This paper presents results from a study exploring the importance of the “hands-on” aspect of a hands-on modeling curriculum we have been developing that spans several topics in statics. The curriculum integrates deep conceptual exploration with analysis procedure tutorials and aims to scaffold students’ development of representational competence, the ability to use multiple representations of a concept as appropriate for learning, problem solving, and communication. We conducted this study over two subsequent terms in an online statics course taught in the context of remote learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The intervention section used a take-home adaptation of the original classroom curriculum. This adaptation consisted of eight activity worksheets with a supplied kit of manipulatives and model-building supplies students could use to construct and explore concrete representations of figures and diagrams used in the worksheets. In contrast, the control section used activity worksheets nearly identical to those used in the hands-on curriculum, but without the associated modeling parts kit. We only made minor revisions to the worksheets to remove reference to the models. The control and intervention sections were otherwise identical in how they were taught by the same instructor. We compare learning outcomes between the two sections as measured via pre-post administration of a test of 3D vector concepts and representations called the Test of Representational Competence with Vectors (TRCV). We also compare end of course scores on the Concept Assessment Test in Statics (CATS) and final exam scores. In addition, we analyze student responses on two “multiple choice plus explain” concept questions paired with each of five activities covering the topics of 3D moments, 3D particle equilibrium, rigid body equilibrium (2D and 3D), and frame analysis (2D). The mean pre/post gain across all ten questions was higher for the intervention section, with the largest differences observed on questions relating to 3D rigid body equilibrium. Students in the intervention section also made larger gains on the TRCV and scored better on the final exam compared to the control section, but these results are not statistically significant perhaps due to the small study population. There were no appreciable differences in end-of-course CATS scores. We also present student feedback on the activity worksheets that was slightly more positive for the versions with the models. 
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  4. This NSF-IUSE exploration and design project began in fall 2018 and features cross-disciplinary collaboration between engineering, math, and psychology faculty to develop learning activities with hands-on models and manipulatives. We are exploring how best to design these activities to support learners’ development of conceptual understanding and representational competence in integral calculus and engineering statics, two foundational courses for most engineering majors. A second goal is to leverage the model-based activities to scaffold spatial skills development in the context of traditional course content. As widely reported in the literature, well-developed spatial abilities correlate with student success and persistence in many STEM majors. We provided calculus students in selected intervention sections taught by four instructors at three different community colleges with take-home model kits that they could reference for a series of asynchronous learning activities. Students in these sections completed the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) in the first and last weeks of their course. We also administered the assessment in multiple control sections (no manipulatives) taught by the same faculty. This paper analyzes results from fall 2020 through fall 2021 to see if there is any difference between control and intervention sections for the courses as a whole and for demographic subgroups including female-identifying students and historically-underserved students of color. All courses were asynchronous online modality in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that students in intervention sections of calculus made slightly larger gains on the PSVT:R, but this result is not statistically significant as a whole or for any of the demographic subgroups considered. We also analyzed final course grades for differences between control and intervention sections and found no differences. We found no significant effect of the presence of the model-based activities leading to increased PSVT:R gains or improved course grades. We would not extend this conclusion to face-to-face implementation, however, due primarily to the compromises made to adapt the curriculum from in-person group learning to asynchronous individual work and inconsistent engagement of the online students with the modeling activities. 
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  5. This work in progress paper describes ongoing work to understand the ways in which students make use of manipulatives to develop their representational competence and deepen their conceptual understanding of course content. Representational competence refers to the fluency with which a subject expert can move between different representations of a concept (e.g. mathematical, symbolic, graphical, 2D vs. 3D, pictorial) as appropriate for communication, reasoning, and problem solving. Several hands-on activities for engineering statics have been designed and implemented in face-to-face courses since fall 2016. In the transition to online learning in response to the COVID 19 pandemic, modeling kits were sent home to students so they could work on the activities at their own pace and complete the associated worksheets. An assignment following the vector activities required students to create videotaped or written reflections with annotated pictures using the models to explain their thinking around key concepts. Students made connections between abstract symbolic representations and their physical models to explain concepts such as a general 3D unit vector, the difference between spherical coordinate angles and coordinate direction angles, and the meaning of decomposing a vector into components perpendicular and parallel to a line. Thematic analysis of the video and written data was used to develop codes and identify themes in students’ use of the models as it relates to developing representational competence. The student submissions also informed the design of think-aloud exercises in one-on-one semi-structured interviews between researchers and students that are currently in progress. This paper presents initial work analyzing and discussing themes that emerged from the initial video and written analysis and plans for the subsequent think-aloud interviews, all focused on the specific attributes of the models that students use to make sense of course concepts. The ultimate goal of this work is to develop some general guidelines for the design of manipulatives to support student learning in a variety of STEM topics. 
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  6. null (Ed.)
    Engineering instructors often use physical manipulatives such as foam beams, rolling cylinders, and large representations of axis systems to demonstrate mechanics concepts and help students visualize systems. Additional benefits are possible when manipulatives are in the hands of individual students or small teams of students who can explore concepts at their own pace and focus on their specific points of confusion. Online learning modalities require new strategies to promote spatial visualization and kinesthetic learning. Potential solutions include creating videos of the activities, using CAD models to demonstrate the principles, programming computer simulations, and providing hands-on manipulatives to students for at-home use. This Work-in-Progress paper discusses our experiences with this last strategy in statics courses two western community colleges and a western four-year university where we supplied students with their own hands-on kits. We have previously reported on the successful implementation of a hands-on statics kit consisting of 3D printed components and standard hardware. The kit was originally designed for use by teams of students during class to engage with topics such as vectors, moments, and rigid body equilibrium. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to online instruction, the first author developed a scaled down version of the kit for at-home use by individual students and modified the associated activity worksheets accordingly. For the community college courses, local students picked up their models at the campus bookstore. We also shipped some of the kits to students who were unable to come to campus, including some in other countries. Due to problems with printing and availability of materials, only 18 kits were available for the class of 34 students at the university implementation. Due to this circumstance, students were placed in teams and asked to work together virtually, one student showing the kit to the other student as they worked through the worksheet prompts. One community college instructor took this approach as well for a limited number of international students who did not receive their kits in a timely manner due to shipping problems. Two instructors assigned the hands-on kits as asynchronous learning activities in their respective online courses, with limited guidance on their use. The third used the kits primarily in synchronous online class meetings. We found that students’ reaction to the models varied by pilot site and presume that implementation differences contributed to this variation. In all cases, student feedback was less positive than it has been for face-to-face courses that used the models from which the take home kit was adapted. Our main conclusion is that implementation matters. Doing hands-on learning in an online course requires some fundamental rethinking about how the learning is structured and scaffolded. 
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  7. This NSF-IUSE exploration and design project began in fall 2018 and features cross-disciplinary collaboration between engineering, math, and psychology faculty to develop learning activities with 3D-printed models, build the theoretical basis for how they support learning, and assess their effectiveness in the classroom. We are exploring how such models can scaffold spatial skills and support learners’ development of conceptual understanding and representational competence in calculus and engineering statics. We are also exploring how to leverage the model-based activities to embed spatial skills training into these courses. The project’s original focus was on group learning in classroom activities with shared manipulatives. After a year of development and pilot activities, we commenced data collection in classroom implementations of a relatively mature curriculum starting fall 2019. Data collection ended abruptly in March 2020 when we had to shift gears in the context of a shift to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With uncertainty as to when the use of shared hands-on models in a collaborative in-person learning context would be feasible again, it was clear a change in approach would be necessary. We have since developed new versions of the models and associated curriculum designed for independent at-home use in the context of online learning. We implemented the new curricula in an online statics courses in fall 2020 and in multiple sections of online calculus courses in winter 2021. In this paper, we describe our strategies for implementing hands-on learning at home. We also present some example activities and compare the approach to the face-to-face versions. Finally, we compare student feedback results on the online activities to analogous feedback data from the classroom implementations and discuss implications for the anticipated return to face-to-face learning in the classroom. 
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  8. A growing body of research indicates spatial visualization skills are important to success in many STEM disciplines, including several engineering majors that rely on a foundation in engineering mechanics. Many fundamental mechanics concepts such as free-body diagrams, moments, and vectors are inherently spatial in that application of the concept and related analytical techniques requires visualization and sketching. Visualization may also be important to mechanics learners’ ability to understand and employ common mechanics representations and conventions in communication and problem solving, a skill known as representational competence. In this paper, we present early research on how spatial abilities might factor in to students’ conceptual understanding of vectors and associated representational competence. We administered the Mental Cutting Test (MCT), a common assessment of spatial abilities, in the first and last week of the term. We also administered the Test of Representational Competence with Vectors (TRCV), a targeted assessment of vector concepts and representations, in week one and at mid-term. The vector post-test came after coverage of moments and cross products. We collected this assessment data in statics courses across multiple terms at three different colleges. To understand how spatial skills relate to the development of representational competence, we use a multiple regression model to predict TRCV scores using the pre-class MCT scores as well as other measures of student preparation in the form of grades in prerequisite math and physics coursework. We then extend the analysis to consider both MCT and TRCV scores as predictors for student performance on the Concept Assessment Test in Statics. We find that spatial abilities are a factor in students’ development of representational competence with vectors. We also find that representational competence with vectors likely mediates the importance of spatial abilities to student success in developing broader conceptual understanding in statics. We conclude by discussing implications for mechanics instruction. 
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  9. The landscapes of many elementary, middle, and high school math classrooms have undergone major transformations over the last half-century, moving from drill-and-skill work to more conceptual reasoning and hands-on manipulative work. However, if you look at a college level calculus class you are likely to find the main difference is the professor now has a whiteboard marker in hand rather than a piece of chalk. It is possible that some student work may be done on the computer, but much of it contains the same type of repetitive skill building problems. This should seem strange given the advancements in technology that allow more freedom than ever to build connections between different representations of a concept. Several class activities have been developed using a combination of approaches, depending on the topic. Topics covered in the activities include Riemann Sums, Accumulation, Center of Mass, Volumes of Revolution (Discs, Washers, and Shells), and Volumes of Similar Cross-section. All activities use student note outlines that are either done in a whole group interactive-lecture approach, or in a group work inquiry-based approach. Some of the activities use interactive graphs designed on desmos.com and others use physical models that have been designed in OpenSCAD and 3D-printed for students to use in class. Tactile objects were developed because they should provide an advantage to students by enabling them to physically interact with the concepts being taught, deepening their involvement with the material, and providing more stimuli for the brain to encode the learning experience. Web-based activities were developed because the topics involved needed substantial changes in graphical representations (i.e. limits with Riemann Sums). Assessment techniques for each topic include online homework, exams, and online concept questions with an explanation response area. These concept questions are intended to measure students’ ability to use multiple representations in order to answer the question, and are not generally computational in nature. Students are also given surveys to rate the overall activities as well as finer grained survey questions to try and elicit student thoughts on certain aspects of the models, websites, and activity sheets. We will report on student responses to the activity surveys, looking for common themes in students’ thoughts toward specific attributes of the activities. We will also compare relevant exam question responses and online concept question results, including common themes present or absent in student reasoning. 
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  10. Modern 3D printing technology makes it relatively easy and affordable to produce physical models that offer learners concrete representations of otherwise abstract concepts and representations. We hypothesize that integrating hands-on learning with these models into traditionally lecture-dominant courses may help learners develop representational competence, the ability to interpret, switch between, and appropriately use multiple representations of a concept as appropriate for learning, communication and analysis. This approach also offers potential to mitigate difficulties that learners with lower spatial abilities may encounter in STEM courses. Spatial thinking connects to representational competence in that internal mental representations (i.e. visualizations) facilitate work using multiple external representations. A growing body of research indicates well-developed spatial skills are important to student success in many STEM majors, and that students can improve these skills through targeted training. This NSF-IUSE exploration and design project began in fall 2018 and features cross-disciplinary collaboration between engineering, math, and psychology faculty to develop learning activities with 3D-printed models, build the theoretical basis for how they support learning, and assess their effectiveness in the classroom. We are exploring how such models can support learners’ development of conceptual understanding and representational competence in calculus and engineering statics. We are also exploring how to leverage the model-based activities to embed spatial skills training into these courses. The project is addressing these questions through parallel work piloting model-based learning activities in the classroom and by investigating specific attributes of the activities in lab studies and focus groups. To date we have developed and piloted a mature suite of activities covering a variety of topics for both calculus and statics. Class observations and complementary studies in the psychology lab are helping us develop a theoretical framework for using the models in instruction. Close observation of how students use the models to solve problems and as communication tools helps identify effective design elements. We are administering two spatial skills assessments as pre/post instruments: the Purdue Spatial Visualizations Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) in calculus; and the Mental Cutting Test (MCT) in statics. We are also developing strategies and refining approaches for assessing representational competence in both subject areas. Moving forward we will be using these assessments in intervention and control sections of both courses to assess the effectiveness of the models for all learners and subgroups of learners. 
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