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A Framework For Understanding Engineering Practice

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Professional Skills and the Workplace

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.42.1 - 13.42.21



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Paper Authors


James Trevelyan University of Western Australia Orcid 16x16

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James Trevelyan is professor and mechatronics discipline chair at the University of Western Australia. He leads the Engineering Learning and Practice Research group in the School of Mechanical Engineering. He is an elected member of the International Federation for Theory of Machines and Mechanisms Executive Council and is well known for developing sheep shearing robots and innovations in landmine clearance methods.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

A Framework for Understanding Engineering Practice

Abstract Empirical research on engineering practice using interviews and field observation provides a detailed conceptual framework to describe engineering practice using terminology that can be used across discipline boundaries. This research provides, possibly for the first time, an empirically-based and comprehensive description of engineering practice and demonstrates the centrality of social interactions in engineering practice. The implication for engineering education is that students need the opportunity to build a rigorous intellectual framework in which to think about human behavior issues, alongside existing rigorous treatment of scientific, mathematical and technical issues. Beyond this, students require exposure to the complexities of engineering practice and socio-technical systems with a solid research-based foundation. This will be necessary to overcome currently perceived weaknesses in engineering education which are perceived by industry employers and graduates alike.

Introduction There are extensive and continuing debates on engineering education at relevant conferences and also in several journals. These debates focus mainly on pedagogy and performance assessment: the objectives are mostly taken for granted in the form of the ABET criteria or similar outcome definitions1-4.

At the same time, however, there have been many concerns expressed by employers on the perceived gaps between engineering education and professional practice5-7. These concerns continue even after fundamental changes to accreditation criteria have been introduced worldwide. In a survey to assess the effects of these changes, only about 50% of American employers thought that engineering graduates understood the context and constraints that govern engineering, and there was a majority assessment that graduate understanding had declined in the last decade8. This agrees with persistent feedback from employers in Australia that graduates lack appreciation of fundamental knowledge and engineering courses are misaligned with industry needs. Graduates themselves have acknowledged these weaknesses9. A survey of industry requirements for engineering education in Britain found evidence of skill deficits and concern that “the grade of degree awarded can be a poor indicator of a graduate’s actual abilities”10. Employers expressed “a need for enhancing courses in terms of their development of practical skills but not at the cost of losing a strong theoretical base”.

There are other signs pointing to the need to rethink the objectives of engineering education.

In a recent visit to a representative sample of leading engineering education institutions in India I learned that very few of their graduates enter engineering careers: most are employed by IT firms producing software (and associated services). The apparent driver is salary levels: IT firms pay 50,000 Indian rupees/month. (~US$16,000/yr). In engineering companies graduates earn about one third as much. Labor market theory tells us that salary levels are typically related to the marginal product created by a worker. This suggests that Indian engineering graduates do not have appropriate skills to generate as much value for their employers as they can in software-related work.

Trevelyan, J. (2008, June), A Framework For Understanding Engineering Practice Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3319

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