Managing uncertainty in collaborative robotics engineering projects : the influence of task structure and peer interaction
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Uncertainty is ubiquitous in life, and learning is an activity particularly likely to be fraught with uncertainty. Previous research suggests that students and teachers struggle in their attempts to manage the psychological experience of uncertainty and that students often fail to experience uncertainty when uncertainty may be warranted. Yet, few educational researchers have explicitly and systematically observed what students do, their behaviors and strategies, as they attempt to manage the uncertainty they experience during academic tasks. In this study I investigated how students in one fifth grade class managed uncertainty they experienced while engaged in collaborative robotics engineering projects, focusing particularly on how uncertainty management was influenced by task structure and students’ interactions with their peer collaborators. The study was initiated at the beginning of instruction related to robotics engineering and preceded through the completion of several long-term collaborative robotics projects, one of which was a design project. I relied primarily on naturalistic observation of group sessions, semi-structured interviews, and collection of artifacts. My data analysis was inductive and interpretive, using qualitative discourse analysis techniques and methods of grounded theory. Three theoretical frameworks influenced the conception and design of this study: community of practice, distributed cognition, and complex adaptive systems theory. Uncertainty was a pervasive experience for the students collaborating in this instructional context. Students experienced uncertainty related to the project activity and uncertainty related to the social system as they collaborated to fulfill the requirements of their robotics engineering projects. They managed their uncertainty through a diverse set of tactics for reducing, ignoring, maintaining, and increasing uncertainty. Students experienced uncertainty from more different sources and used more and different types of uncertainty management strategies in the less structured task setting than in the more structured task setting. Peer interaction was influential because students relied on supportive social response to enact most of their uncertainty management strategies. When students could not garner socially supportive response from their peers, their options for managing uncertainty were greatly reduced.