2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Why a PhD? An exercise with LEGO®. Using novel communication tools to express multilevel complex messages

Presented at Graduate Studies Division (GSD) Technical Session 5: Graduate Student Experience and Decision-Making

STEM doctoral students are typically regarded as strong model builders but weak reflective communicators. Expressing one’s motivations to undertake a PhD degree requires the elaboration of a multi-level complex message, as reasoning and emotion are often interwoven. Newly enrolled doctoral candidates were asked to explain ‘why a PhD’ using LEGO® pieces to help them express beyond words, with constructions, through similes and metaphors. The use of LEGO® was intentional for two reasons: it gave them a visual and kinaesthetic outlet for enhancing and deepening their reflections and message; and it put them at ease, in ‘play mode’, which allowed them to access aspects of their psyche not typically exploited in technical conversations. They constructed stories, created characters, and produced metaphors to channel and express what their motivations, drives and purpose were. The most common types of metaphors used were visual, ontological and spatially related. Their level of satisfaction was high in that they felt more confident to explain an otherwise elusive question that they had found difficult to address, articulate and communicate previously. The individual’s commitment to building correlates positively with the sophistication of the metaphors created. A larger than expected frequency in the use of literal similes was also observed, which was attributed to a lack of engagement, poor language skills and cultural differences. As a secondary aim, this exercise – where they shared deeper meaning emotion-laden messages on journeys and personal growth – intended to increase cohortness, togetherness and the emergence of a peer-support network.

  1. Prof. Paul Conway FREng CEng Loughborough University [biography]
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