March 6, 2023

Pedagogical Use of a Wicked Problem in an Authentic Situation — Climate Change at the Heart of Extracurricular Activities in Engineering Physics Technology

This article is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

At Cégep André-Laurendeau, David Beaulieu, a teacher in Engineering Physics Technology, and Julie Roberge, a teacher in the Department of French, are currently conducting a research project on the pedagogical use of wicked problems (problems based on complex and ill-defined issues) in authentic situations.

I spoke with David and Julie to learn more about this multi-faceted project.

Photo showing Julie Roberge and David Beaulieu side by side, smiling at the camera. Julie rests her arm on David's shoulder, who has his arms crossed.

Julie Roberge and David Beaulieu (Photo credit: Guillaume Barbeau, information technician, Cégep André-Laurendeau)

A 3-part research project

A technological project that gave rise to 2 educational projects

The entire project stems from a research project funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologie (FRQNT) [in French], conducted by David and fellow Engineering Physics Technology teachers Richard Milette and Yanick Heynemand. As part of this project spanning several years, they are working on the development of a weather station adapted to taking measurements on glaciers.

David had the idea of involving students in this project. Indeed, Engineering Physics Technology students develop competencies during their studies that allow them to contribute to the design of the station.

This project, which began in the fall of 2022, leads 1st-year students to embark on a series of extracurricular activities that will extend through their graduation.

To make the most of the experience, David enlisted Julie’s help to conduct two other research projects on the pedagogical aspect of student engagement.

Impacts on motivation: students’ perceptions

The design of a weather station to monitor melting ice has everything to stimulate the interest of students: climate change is a subject that generally concerns young people (and the not-so-young!). And fighting climate change is a wicked problem.

David and Julie hypothesize that using a wicked problem in an authentic situation can have a positive impact on students concerning:

  • their motivation
  • their retention in the program
  • their success

To observe and document students’ perceptions of these issues, David and Julie obtained funding from the programme d’aide à la recherche sur l’enseignement et l’apprentissage (PAREA) [in French].

David and Julie see the use of wicked problems in authentic situations as a solution to the dropout problem and the high failure rate in the Engineering Physics Technology program.

How to teach wicked problems in authentic situations?

David explained to me that there is relatively little literature on teaching based on wicked problems in authentic situations. In the literature [in French], teaching based on wicked problems at the college level is addressed only from a social perspective (through discussions of social issues, for example) rather than through action and technical solutions. David and Julie therefore had the idea of conducting action research on teaching based on wicked problems in authentic situations.

Funded by the Fonds de recherche – Société et culture (FRQSC) [in French], this project aims to work iteratively with the various teachers involved in the creation, adaptation and implementation of authentic learning situations related to the design of the weather station.

In the fall of 2022, David, Julie and their colleagues (Yanick Heynemand, Richard Milette and Corinne Vallée) had a training meeting with Marie Ménard [in French] about assessment in authentic situations. The research team also read the book La situation authentique: de la conception à l’évaluation, by Anne-Marie Duval and Mélanie Pagé [in French].

Activities experienced by the students

The design of a weather station is a project that has occupied David and his colleagues for several years, but the funding received through the FRQNT will allow for a much-improved station to be developed.

Still, in the last few years, David had already involved students as (paid) research assistants in this design project. In 2019-2020, he traveled to Peru with a group of students who had co-designed prototype stations to test them on a glacier [in French].

David Beaulieu and 3 graduating students, after installing a weather station on the Ausengate glacier in Peru in January 2020

The weather station tested on a Peruvian glacier in 2019-2020

8 people are standing on a small earthen mound. The people look at the camera with a smile. Most have walking sticks in their hands. A few are carrying large backpacks. Other bags and walking sticks are lying on the ground at the feet of the people. People are wearing windbreaker coats, and all have their hoods on. The weather looks wet, even rainy. Rocky mountains are visible in the background; there is some snow on top of these mountains, but not where the people are standing.

The complete group, during the trip to Peru in 2019-2020

In fact, in the current project, graduating volunteers act as mentors for younger students. These students did not have the opportunity to experience the kind of activities that David and Julie are currently deploying when they entered the program, but they have valuable skills and are familiar with David’s weather station project.

In the context of the new research projects, student involvement will be systematized, broader and more consistent. The research will observe and document the impacts on students of their participation in such projects.

Activities integrated into courses

At the time I spoke with David and Julie, the 1st session of the project was coming to an end. The Engineering Physics Technology teachers had identified 2 1st-session courses in which pedagogical activities had been replaced with activities related to the weather station project.

Geocaching at Angrignon Park

In one of the classes, to familiarize themselves with GPS positioning (essential for the operation of a portable weather station), the students did a geocaching activity at Angrignon Park. This park is adjacent to the college. The students spent 90 minutes in the park taking measurements. They learned how to read a map and how to read GPS coordinates. At each coordinate point they reached, they had to take a series of measurements using their portable weather station.

As David explained to me, when you are going to install a weather station on a glacier, you have to know how to use a GPS. If only to be able to go back to the right place to recover the station afterward!

Julie told me that the students (and teachers!) loved the experience. Several students mentioned that they enjoyed just being outside. This reminded me of the virtues of outdoor pedagogy, which is becoming more and more popular.

Learning how to use software that will be part of the project

In another class, students learned how to use a software program that allows analyzing the data they had taken with their weather station during the Angrignon Park activity.

Activities outside of courses

The activities integrated into the courses are mandatory for all. However, the project also includes non-mandatory (but popular!) extracurricular activities. These activities also draw on the students’ engineering skills.

Program welcome activity

In the fall of 2022, the 1st-year students, accompanied by several teachers (including David and Julie) and 5 3rd-year student mentors, went on a field trip to the Mont-Mégantic Observatory. (The Observatory is a partner in the research project.) The Observatory has weather instruments on site at the top of the mountain. The teaching team and mentors invited the 1st-year students to come with them to observe their work during a simulated expedition. 95% of the 1st-year students participated.

 About 20 people are standing in a semicircle around a portable weather station on a tripod in the center of a sandy clearing surrounded by fall-coloured hardwoods. The people are listening to a man, whom we guess is a teacher explaining something to them.

Students listen to explanations about the operation of the weather station during the field trip to Mont Mégantic.

The field trip to Mont-Mégantic served as a program welcome activity. This activity was an opportunity for the new students to discover other professional perspectives for engineering technologists than those they usually know about when they enroll in the program. Many see themselves working in a laboratory, but engineering physics can take them to many different places!

Most importantly, the activity had an important social aspect. It allowed the students to develop a sense of belonging to their group and to bond with the teaching team.

During the activity, 1 1st-year teacher was present, but also 3 2nd-year and 3rd-year teachers. For the students, seeing that their future teachers are there is very motivating! They see that there is an overall unity in the program, that the program will not be a bunch of disjointed courses.

-David Beaulieu

Conference by a meteorologist

One afternoon in late November 2022, meteorologist Gilles Brien came to meet with the Engineering Physics Technology students to talk about climate change. His scientific explanations made the students aware that these changes will affect many places on Earth differently.

Paid student work

Starting in their 3rd session, students will be able to get involved in the project outside of class hours to act as research assistants on a voluntary basis.

Becoming familiar with the project, gradually

In their 1st session, students do not have the skills to participate in the design of the station. However, they can already learn how to use the station and, more generally, learn about taking measurements in the field. They learn about the project from their teachers and student mentors. Seeing the last-year students at work allows them to understand the concrete usefulness of the knowledge they are acquiring in their courses. As David told me, it shows them how difficult concepts taught in their math classes can be useful.

We involve 1st-year students in a project to measure environmental data related to climate change. This is a social issue that concerns them.

-David Beaulieu

As they gain skills throughout their academic careers, students who are now in their 1st year will be able to contribute to the design project in increasingly meaningful ways, either in their courses or on a voluntary basis extracurricularly.

A graduation trip

During their final year of study, graduating students who wish to do so will be able to take a trip to set up their station on a glacier to test it and collect data. (The station tested in Peru in 2019-2020 could not be left behind. The goal now is to design a station that could operate autonomously on a glacier).

What is the purpose of the data collected by the weather station?

The objective is that the data collected will be used by the GlacioLab [in French] of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (a partner in the project). The GlacioLab is directed by Christophe Kinnard [in French], who is also the Director of the Canada Research Chair in Cryospheric Hydrology.

The GlacioLab studies glaciers, but data is very sparse or non-existent for some (such as the Peruvian glacier visited by David and his students in 2019-2020).

The engineering technologists from Cégep-André Laurendeau could thus use their expertise in design and measurement to provide data to the GlacioLab team. Christophe Kinnard and his team will then use this data to feed a predictive model on glacier melting. This is no small feat!

Other partners in the project include the Centre d’études nordiques de l’Université Laval [in French] (CEN). The CEN provides David and his team with access to a network of weather stations across the Canadian Arctic, as well as access to their remote research stations. The Cégep André-Laurendeau team can use the data provided by the CEN to calibrate their own.

Hypotheses about the winning conditions for the pedagogical use of wicked problems in authentic situations

According to David and Julie, for the pedagogical use of a wicked problem in an authentic situation to be successful, the problem must be one that the students care about.

Authenticity is not necessarily enough. David explained to me that he could have taken his students to a screwdriver factory and asked them to design a sensor to detect faulty screwdrivers. That would have been very pedagogically relevant and authentic, but finding an issue that the students care about and are genuinely interested in makes the activity even more powerful.

We are not going to solve the problem of climate change, but we are going to participate in finding solutions. We contribute to finding solutions with our own expertise: taking measurement.

-David Beaulieu

Thus, the strength of a “good” wicked problem is that it goes beyond the students’ academic interests and career aspirations and genuinely touches them.

The key is that in the worst moments of their studies, when students don’t know why they are in Engineering Physics Technology, the project will remind them that they are working for a cause bigger than themselves. That will motivate them!

-David Beaulieu

Julie agrees: the choice of the problem is central. Climate change, world hunger… These are problems for which finding a solution will be motivating. Obviously, it is important to identify a portion of the problem that we want to tackle with our students. By definition, wicked problems are “larger than life” problems. Climate change and world hunger are not problems that students can really solve… You have to choose a specific aspect of the problem, such as measuring glacier melt in the case of David and Julie’s project.

On the other hand, David believes that in order for the pedagogical use of a wicked problem to be successful, it is very important to work concretely on solving the problem. It’s not enough to run a simulation in class and say, “This is what we could do.” You have to act for real. It’s not enough to study an authentic problem; the contribution you offer to its solution must be authentic as well.

Julie also told me about the value she sees in having their project span the entire program and be thought of in a program-based approach. However, in another context, a teacher might still choose to use a wicked problem in an authentic situation on a smaller scale, integrating it into a single course.

Of course, research will reveal much more (or correct misperceptions!) about the educational use of wicked problems!

Any ideas on how to renew your program’s integrative assessment?

The program-based approach that encompasses the weather station project can be an inspiring avenue if you are looking to make your program’s integrative assessment more meaningful or if you need your students to better see the connection between this evaluation and their overall coursework. Indeed, it can be difficult for students to complete a capstone project that brings together skills from different courses if there is no clear connection between those courses.

With a project like the one taking place in Engineering Physics Technology at Cégep André-Laurendeau, the way is clear for the integrative assessment: students will be able to design a weather station!

Iterative improvements and generalization of results

The design of the weather station goes through an iterative process. In collaboration with the students, David and his colleagues develop a new and improved version of the station each year. Each cohort can then test their version of the station.

The pedagogical aspect of the project is also an iterative process. In fact, since the project takes place over 3 years, at least 3 cohorts of students will be able to experience it in their 1st year. Each time, the recurring pedagogical activities are enhanced and improved. The improvements will be based on the testimonials of the students and teachers, collected through group and individual interviews, but also on testimonials of the student mentors who support the groups.

What works well? What are the winning conditions for the pedagogical use of a wicked problem in an authentic situation? David and Julie want their project to lead to actionable conclusions that could be adapted for other technical programs and contexts.

The project is in its early stages, but it will certainly be very interesting to follow its developments and conclusions!

Eductive is an official partner of the research project and will participate in the publication of its results. Subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything!

For more information

An article written by David Beaulieu and Julie Roberge in the Spring 2022 issue of Pédagogie collégiale: “The Wicked Problem of Engaging Students in Their Studies.”

A news item published on October 28, 2022 on the Portail du réseau collégial du Québec, about the grants obtained by David, Julie and their colleagues: ” Les départements de Technologie du génie physique et de Français reçoivent près de 1,3 million$ en subventions” [in French].

A text written in 2022 by David and Julie in Spectre, the journal of the Association pour l’enseignement de la science et de la technologie au Québec (AESTQ): “Les méchants problèmes qui font réussir. L’acquisition des compétences par la résolution d’un problème d’envergure en situation authentique” [in French].

About the author

Catherine Rhéaume

Catherine Rhéaume is an editor and writer for Eductive (previously Profweb) since 2013. She also teaches physics at Cégep Limoilou. Her work for Eductive fosters her interest for technopedagogy and encourages her to try innovative teaching practices.

Notify of

0 Commentaires
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments