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The use of physical and virtual manipulatives in an undergraduate mechanical engineering (Dynamics) course

, University of Virginia, United States

University of Virginia . Awarded


Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is a national focus. Engineering education, as part of STEM education, needs to adapt to meet the needs of the nation in a rapidly changing world. Using computer-based visualization tools and corresponding 3D printed physical objects may help nontraditional students succeed in engineering classes. This dissertation investigated how adding physical or virtual learning objects (called manipulatives) to courses that require mental visualization of mechanical systems can aid student performance. Dynamics is one such course, and tends to be taught using lecture and textbooks with static diagrams of moving systems. Students often fail to solve the problems correctly and an inability to mentally visualize the system can contribute to student difficulties.

This study found no differences between treatment groups on quantitative measures of spatial ability and conceptual knowledge. There were differences between treatments on measures of mechanical reasoning ability, in favor of the use of physical and virtual manipulatives over static diagrams alone. There were no major differences in student performance between the use of physical and virtual manipulatives. Students used the physical and virtual manipulatives to test their theories about how the machines worked, however their actual time handling the manipulatives was extremely limited relative to the amount of time they spent working on the problems. Students used the physical and virtual manipulatives as visual aids when communicating about the problem with their partners, and this behavior was also seen with Traditional group students who had to use the static diagrams and gesture instead. The explanations students gave for how the machines worked provided evidence of mental simulation; however, their causal chain analyses were often flawed, probably due to attempts to decrease cognitive load. Student opinions about the static diagrams and dynamic models varied by type of model (static, physical, virtual), but were generally favorable. The Traditional group students, however, indicated that the lack of adequate representation of motion in the static diagrams was a problem, and wished they had access to the physical and virtual models.


Pan, E.A. The use of physical and virtual manipulatives in an undergraduate mechanical engineering (Dynamics) course. Ph.D. thesis, University of Virginia. Retrieved October 14, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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