Engineering students learn to become engineers through a curriculum of challenging, carefully sequenced courses. Disruption of this sequence may lead to poor performance, exit from the major or college, and extended time to graduation. These negative student outcomes could in turn damage national economic competitiveness by limiting the number of engineers available to enter the workforce. This project will gather time-sensitive data to investigate the impact of the rapid shift to online instruction due to COVID-19. In contrast to their highly structured in-person classes. virtual environments place much greater responsibility on students to manage their own learning, As a result, undergraduate students, including those at military academic institutions such as the Citadel, are experiencing increased mental demands (i.e. cognitive load) as they tackle the rigors of engineering coursework, while simultaneously exercising self-directed learning skills. This project will gather and analyse data about the impact of online courses on the cognitive load and self-directed learning readiness of Citadel engineering students. This information has the potential to be broadly applicable to undergraduate engineering education, as well as to other STEM disciplines and to education levels before and beyond college.

The project focuses on a unique and under-represented population of engineering students who, under normal circumstances, must complete military training in addition to satisfying academic requirements. Students? cognitive load and self-directed learning readiness will be measured using established survey instruments and student focus groups before and after the shift to online learning, as well as after the return to on-campus operations. Three research questions, undergirded by cognitive load theory, will guide the investigations: (1) How do students? cognitive loads and/or self-directed learning readiness differ between in-person and online course? (2) To what extent are changes in self-directed learning readiness associated with changes in cognitive load? (3) Which demographic factors (if any) impact changes in cognitive load and self-directed learning readiness? The project team will use a mixed methods approach to analyze the qualitative and quantitative data collected from surveys and focus groups to determine the magnitude and duration of changes in students? cognitive load and self-directed learning readiness. Findings from the proposed work have the potential to advance knowledge related to students? online learning experiences that can aid in improving course offerings as part of regular instruction, as well as situations in which continuity of instruction is threatened. The intellectual merit of the project lies in its potential to contribute to foundational knowledge relating to issues of sudden and drastic shifts in educational environments as experienced by diverse students at a military institution. The broader impacts of the project lie in its potential to gather time-sensitive data that will permit significant contributions to our understanding of how undergraduate military student learners adapt to disruptive change in their learning environments. This RAPID award is made by the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education program in the Division of Undergraduate Education (Education and Human Resources Directorate), using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Abby Ilumoka
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Citadel Military College of South Carolina
United States
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