My current research at CU focuses on engineering education research. Here you can see some information about the projects I have undertaken at the University of Michigan and Tufts University.

During my Ph.D., my research focused on cognitive ergonomics.  You can find information about that work by clicking here.

University of Michigan

Impact of Flexible Classroom Spaces on Faculty Pedagogy and Student Behavior

I served as the Co-I of a $300,000 grant from the NSF Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program to investigate how teaching and learning are influenced by flexible classroom spaces in which the tables and chairs can be rearranged. The PI of this project was Prof. Cindy Finelli. You can read/watch more about the research here, and you can see some of the "Tips for Using a Flexible Classroom" that we developed throughout the project here.

Open-Ended Modeling Problems

Tufts University

Responsive Teaching in Engineering

Responsive teaching is a process in which teachers elicit student thinking around a topic, notice and interpret productive aspects of their thinking, and respond in ways that support their disciplinary work. Responsive teaching has the potential to increase student conceptual understanding and provide an opportunity for them to engage in disciplinary practices, but has not been the focus of much research in engineering education. I am working with Drs. Kristen Wendell and Jessica Watkins at Tufts to investigate the ways in which elementary teachers noticed and interpreted disciplinary aspects of their students’ engineering design. My research on responsive teaching was recognized in the 2016 American Society for Engineering Education Pre-College Engineering Education Division best paper competition, and was republished in the Journal of Pre-college Engineering Education.

This research was part of the NSF-funded Novel Engineering project, Chris Rogers, PI.

Pre-college Students’ Use of Systems Engineering Methods in Design

I conceived, developed, and led a project to investigate how middle school students employed systems engineering methods during a LEGO robotics design challenge. My collaborators—Paul Grogan from Stevens Institute of Technology and Sara Willner-Giwerc from Tufts—and I found evidence that students used systems engineering methods like performing functional decomposition, identifying requirements, and testing and iterating—all of which represent a sophisticated approach to design. This work was funded by the CEEO Innovation Fund and Dr. E's Lab.

Other Activities:

The Science and Engineering of Music Class

In spring 2016 I designed and taught a new pilot course at Tufts University on the Science and Engineering of Music. I had three major goals for students in the course: (1) develop scientific knowledge about the physics of sound, (2) understand this knowledge in the greater context of music theory, and (3) explore how mathematical models of sound can be used to design and build physical instruments. Accomplishing these goals required a number of innovative student-centered pedagogical approaches. Students took the course as either a mechanical engineering, physics, or music course and studied discipline-specific learning objectives with their peers in a “flipped classroom” approach. Each discipline then presented their knowledge to the students in the other disciplines. This gave students a chance to make connections between their discipline and the others. I assessed students’ knowledge through discipline-specific quizzes on each topic, which allowed me to gauge how well each student was achieving his or her own discipline’s learning objective. I also developed open-ended projects in which students gained experience with how the mathematical models of sound discussed in class translated to the design and construction of physical instruments. Students also completed a final instrument-building project in an interdisciplinary team, which gave them experience working alongside teammates with different backgrounds, viewpoints, and skillsets.

LEGO China StoryGames

StoryGames was a competition in which Chinese students used the LEGO Story Starter set to imagine what a day in the life of an astronaut would look like sometime in the future. This competition unites literacy and engineering, as students had to research a space environment and then construct a story that responded to the information they learned. I was involved in developing the StoryGames challenge and evaluation criteria, and visited Shanghai twice to promote the challenge and judge the final competition.


I have developed and lead a LEGO Story Starter workshop for elementary school students, a Novel Engineering workshop for elementary and middle school students, and a balsa airplane-making workshop for high school students.

Journal Papers

  • Johnson, A.W., Blackburn, M.W., Su, M.P., & Finelli, C.J., “How a Flexible Classroom Affords Active Learning in Electrical Engineering.” (Submitted for initial review.)
  • Johnson, A.W., Wendell, K.B., & Watkins, J., “Examining Experienced Teachers’ Noticing of and Responses to Students’ Engineering,” Journal of Pre-college Engineering Education, 7.1, 2017: Article 2. Invited reprint of Johnson, Wendell, & Watkins (2016). doi: 10.7771/2157-9288.1162

Peer-Reviewed Conference Papers

Conference Posters and Abstracts

  • Rogers, C., Hammer, D., Portsmore, M., Milto, E., Watkins, J., Johnson, A., & Bratzel, B., “The Dimensions of Solution Diversity in Novel Engineering: An Integrated Approach to Teaching Engineering and Literacy,” Poster presented at the 2016 National Science Foundation DR K-12 PI Meeting, Washington, DC, June 2016.

Invited Talks, Posters, and Panel Discussions

  • Johnson, A. et al. “STEM Education:  An exploration of current programs at all levels in MA State and corporate support initiatives,” panel discussion at the 2016 AUVSI New England Robotica Conference, Devens, MA, 9 June 2016.
  • Johnson, A., Rogers, C., Lehrman, P., & Tobin, R., “Interdisciplinary Peer Learning in the Science and Engineering of Music,” invited poster presented at the 29th Tufts University-Wide Teaching Conference, Medford, MA, 24 May 2016.