primary school, engineering education, design cognition, design assessment, concurrent think-aloud protocols


This study examined the design cognition and achievement results of both kindergarten and fourth grade students engaged in engineering design-based instructional activities. Relationships between design cognition and student grade level, as well as quality of student work, were investigated. 30 concurrent think-aloud protocols were collected from individual primary students as they worked in groups to design and make a solution to a design task. The concurrent think-aloud protocols were examined and coded to determine the duration of time the participants devoted to a pre-established set of mental processes for technological problem solving. Significant differences between kindergarten and fourth grade participants were found in the amount of time various cognitive processes were employed. Fourth grade students dedicated significantly more time to the mental processes of Creating, Defining Problems, Measuring, and Testing than kindergarten students. In addition, when examining the think-aloud protocols along with the evaluations of the participant’s design work, it was found that more time devoted to the cognitive process of Managing could be a significant predictor of lower design achievement. These findings can highlight potential areas for improving educational practice based on the cognitive abilities of students at different grade levels and the quality of their design work. As engineering design-based activities become more prevalent for the teaching of STEM-related content and practices, the results of this research, and the employed methodology, may demonstrate a promising practice for better understanding and assessing such education efforts.

Original Publication Citation

Strimel, G. J., Bartholomew, S. R., Kim, E., & Zhang, L. (2018). An Investigation of Engineering Design Cognition and Achievement in Primary School. Journal of STEM Education Research, 1(1), 173–201.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Journal for STEM Education Research




Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology



University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor