Practical Considerations:
Research Team Puts Engineers Under the Microscope

Project Assistant Kevin Anderson -- image credit: How People Learn EngineeringTo those outside the social sciences, the word ethnography mostly conjures up images of rugged anthropologists living as and among members of unknown tribes in remote locales. But a team of researchers from the College of Engineering has been busy with a very different kind of ethnographic field work, hitting the cube farms and conference rooms of area firms to study practicing engineers in their real-world environment. Think Lévi-Strauss meets Scott Adams.

The team has been using observation, interviews, and surveys to compose a holistic portrait of engineering professional practice. Their work comprises the other half of the NSF-funded How People Learn Engineering project introduced in the last issue of Teaching and Learning Insights.

The team includes Sandra Courter, research project PI and Director of the Engineering Learning Center; Kevin Anderson, a Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis; Traci Nathans-Kelly, Tom McGlamery, and Christine Nicometo, instructors in the Engineering Professional Development Department's Technical Communication Program; and a host of first-year engineering students armed with interview protocols, human subjects research training, and a wealth of curiosity about their chosen field.

By the project's end, Anderson, Nathans-Kelly, McGlamery, and Nicometo will have visited seven firms ranging from small and local to giant and international. They've observed formal technical review meetings, participated in informal brainstorming sessions, thought along with individual engineers tackling particular technical problems, and--recently--marvelled at the scope of some last-minute travel plans made by the engineers at a Wisconsin company whose clientele spans the globe.

"They basically said, 'Who's free and has their passport?' before going online and buying $4,000 tickets to 'pop over' to Iran the next day," Nathans-Kelly said. The incident underscores the reality that working toward good client solutions in today's marketplace requires not just mental competence but also a certain global agility.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the overall picture of the practicing engineers the team has studied reveals a culture defined by discipline, hard work, creativity, and an enthusiasm for project-based work. Their descriptions of that work tend to vary somewhat depending on the venue of the discussion.

"Within the survey, the value tended to be around client work and making sure you're satisfying clients and keeping the focus on the business element of things. Within interviews, it seems to be a lot more centered on learning new things and talking about new projects," Anderson said.

He has been working with the team to aggregate and analyze the large amounts of data their qualitative methodologies produce. The team uses a software tool for qualitative research called NVivo to create a tagged database that cross-references passages from their notes and transcripts with the many themes they've identified as important. These labels or codes are drawn from a number of sources, including important reports like The Engineer of 2020, assessment materials from ABET, ideas from colleague David Shaffer's work studying the culture of various "communities of practice" according to their epistemic frame, and emergent themes found to be common throughout the dataset itself.

PI Sandra Courter -- image credit: How People Learn EngineeringOne such emergent theme relates to the way many engineers self-assess their thought process.

"One thing engineers say is that they were born thinking like an engineer...probably 40-50 percent say something like that," Anderson said. He went on to point out that this is an important result even if it turns out not to be especially true, since it could indicate the extent to which engineers' modes of thinking become internalized and seemingly innate.

Needless to say, careful research of this kind is very time-intensive. That's where the student researchers (who are enrolled in two sections of Courter's Basic Communication class) come in. Each one conducts one or more interviews--in person, by phone, or over email--with practicing engineers who would not otherwise be reached by the research team. But these first-year students are hardly just conscripted data gatherers. Their participation in the study is designed to offer them the chance to form realistic ideas about what engineers actually do. In other words, the information they collect has as much value to them as to the research project, which is probably part of why they rate this personal experience as one of the most valuable of their freshman year.

In a summary session with Courter and Anderson, the student interviewers reflected on the themes they discussed with their practitioner subjects, touching on important issues that included

In addition to serving as a sneak peak into these engineers' careers, the experience also introduces the students to the idea of collaborative research.

"The students have done these interviews just as the faculty have been. They also get the experience of participating as researchers. This is a whole new idea for them, of how their role fits into a larger research project," Courter says. "I encourage them to put this on their résumé as an undergraduate research experience. It's a conversation starter in an interview."

According to one student, it turns out the group may actually have been getting some good practice in the tricks of their new trade as well.

"There's a big emphasis [in engineering] on asking questions...that seemed to be a recurring theme," he said.

Courter and Anderson recently returned from presenting on the team's work at the American Society of Engineering Education's Annual Conference and Exhibition in Austin, TX. The paper, "Understanding the Current Work and Values of Professional Engineers: Implications for Engineering Education," will be available via's Conference Proceedings Search in the coming months. It can also be accessed from the project's homepage here.


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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) David Shaffer on 'epistemic frames'

Courter's group's work aims to explore the epistemic frames that help define how professional engineers go about their work. This short talk at the Eduverse Symposium 2 introduces this concept in the context of Shaffer's research on games that help develop and reinforce these frames for members of communities of practice--engineers, architects, urban planners, etc.

2) AWAKEN Project homepage

Website of the NSF-funded research project of which Courter's group is a part. Includes project overview, information about the collaborators, and links to related publications.