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A picture elicits a thousand meanings: Photo elicitation as a method for investigating cross-disciplinary identity development

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Engineering Identity 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.89.1 - 23.89.21

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Paper Authors


Kristen Hatten Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Kristen Hatten is a doctoral candidate in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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Tiago R Forin Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Tiago Forin is currently a student in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He received his Bachelors degree in Civil Engineering from Florida State University in 2006 and his Masters degree in Environmental Engineering from Purdue University in 2008. While in the School of Engineering Education, he works as a Graduate Research Assistant in the X-Roads Research Group and has an interest in cross-disciplinary practice and engineering identity development.

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Robin Adams Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Robin S. Adams is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her research is concentrated in three interconnecting areas: cross-disciplinary thinking, acting, and being; design cognition and learning; and theories of change in linking engineering education research and practice.

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A picture elicits a thousand meanings: Photo elicitation as a method for investigating cross-disciplinary identity developmentPhoto elicitation is a qualitative research method that allows researchers to deeply comprehendstudy participants’ personal beliefs, experiences, and understandings. Photos, either provided bya study administrator or by a study participant, are used as an artifact in a semi-structuredinterview to elicit the meanings and experiences embodied in the photos. As such, one strengthof the method is that it allows study participants to connect to personal experiences or beliefs(and the meanings associated with these) that can be difficult to elicit using other interviewtechniques. The photos also enable researchers to create probing questions that allow theparticipants to further unpack their experiences.In this paper, we summarize the central ideas and benefits of photo elicitation as a richqualitative research method for investigating study participants’ experiences as learners. Weillustrate both the technique and benefits of this method by providing examples from alongitudinal study of cross-disciplinary ways of thinking, acting, and being. In our study,participants were asked to create and/or supply the researcher with photos that represent facets oftheir experiences—so, for example, a photo that represents each of their personal, professional,disciplinary, and cross-disciplinary lives. Having photos/images that attest to how studyparticipants understand those concepts, we were able to make an interview protocol that helpedstudy participants with explaining their experiences to us. We have found that participants weremuch more talkative, and at a deeper more reflective level, than they were in interviews that usedother techniques. We have also found that the method supports participants in makingconnections across sets of ideas and experiences, revealing a densely connected web of ideas.

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