Aligning Educational Experiences with Ways of Knowing Engineering: How People Learn Engineering

Researchers have found that engineers coordinate informal and formal reasoning and problem solving in ways that are not promoted in traditional science and math courses offered at the secondary level. Similarly, first-year engineering students typically must 'prove themselves' through a set of courses that present the foundations of engineering (e.g., calculus, physics) in a manner far removed from the practices of professional engineers. Experiences in middle school, high school and even college give students a limited picture of what it could mean to be an engineer, and of the skills and knowledge needed to develop into one.

Furthermore, the selection criteria for competitive engineering programs appear to be heavily weighted toward students' academic high school preparation (GPA, ACT or SAT, class standing) and less on their performance in situations that emphasize what we regard as the 'hidden' challenges of engineering, such as design and communication. As a result, many inventive and innovative students with engineering skills and interests are discouraged or prevented from entering the practice.

The epistemic frame model (Shaffer, 2004) looks to the knowledge, skills, values, and ways of thinking exhibited by practicing engineers to specify educational objectives and to determine alignment between the engineering profession and science and mathematics education at both high school and undergraduate levels

This research involves: 1) studying the epistemic frame of practicing engineers to identify the skills, knowledge, values, and ways of thinking that engineers in industry need for professional success and satisfaction, and 2) using ways of knowing engineering as a set of standards against which we can analyze high school and early college instruction and career counseling practices.

We are studying a longitudinal cohort of engineering students who graduated ten years ago, many of whom are now practicing engineers. We also combine survey and interview data of a broad sample of engineers with workplace observations of professional norms and practices from several sites. We involve first-year engineering students in data collection and analysis, and will assess the impact on these research activities on their values, knowledge and beliefs, and attitudes toward the engineering profession.

To pursue the second aim, we investigate how and which high school students seek out and learn pre-engineering, the relation of students’ scholastic experiences and resources to professional engineering practices, and how the vision of successful engineers held by mentors (instructors and counselors) may support and impede students’ future studies and career development. As part of this investigation we compare and contrast high school students’ academic experiences in the sciences to the experiences in Career and Technical Education courses related to pre-engineering, focusing specifically on implementations of the Project Lead the Way curriculum among urban schools with high proportions of students who are historically underrepresented in the engineering profession.

The study will demonstrate the feasibility and utility of the epistemic frame model as a means to study engineering education and reframe it as a set of developmental experiences that could attract more people, and a more diverse group of people, into the engineering profession, as well as reinforce the core skills, knowledge, values, and ways of thinking used by practicing engineers. With the results of our research, engineering educators will be in a more informed position to design innovative programs of study and professional training that better meet the future technology needs of the nation.

Our interdisciplinary research community involves colleagues from multiple engineering disciplines, educational psychology, education leadership and policy analysis, cognitive science, experimental design, discourse analysis, and technical communication.


Mitchell Nathan


Completed on December 31, 2011