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A Real Report from the Trenches of a Ph.D. Dissertation: Exploring the Inherent "Messiness" of Engineering Education Research Through an Audit Trail

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Student Division Innovative Research Methods Technical Session

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Paper Authors


Rachel K. Anderson Clemson University

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Rachel Anderson recently earned her PhD in Engineering and Science Education from Clemson University. She is now the Assistant Coordinator for Clemson's Peer Assisted Learning program. Her research interests include cross-disciplinary teamwork, student development, and program assessment. Rachel received a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Clemson University and a B.S. in Physics from Baldwin-Wallace University.

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Julie P Martin Clemson University

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Julie P. Martin, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Engineering and Science Education at Clemson University. Her research agenda has focused on diversity and inclusion in engineering education. In particular, her NSF-funded CAREER work has investigated how social relations—operationalized as social capital—influence student academic decisions and success, especially for underrepresented and underserved students. Her CAREER research supports the need for continued proactive outreach, educational and support systems that have the potential to form “resource-rich” networks in which students receive information and resources in routine exchanges. Dr. Martin’s current projects evolve her prior research on social and cultural capital away from a “normative” state that requires students to conform to the mainstream institution of engineering education. In addition to research, she is deeply interested in STEM education policy, and held a Science and Technology Policy Fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012-2013. Dr. Martin has held a variety of national leadership positions during her decade-long involvement in ASEE and Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN). In 2016, she won the ASEE Educational Research and Methods Division Distinguished Service award.

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Research publications show the clean, tidy version of the research process. Researchers write and edit their reports to ensure the process is neatly and clearly communicated so that others can easily understand and replicate the study. However, the research process is rarely “neat” or “clean”. All research, regardless of the field, has an inherent level of “messiness”. The research process involves an iterative procedure of testing hypotheses, interpreting results, and making decisions as the project moves forward. This paper will explore my research process as I conducted a qualitative study for my dissertation. I present my process as an audit trail outlining the decisions I made while developing and implementing my study of a group of undergraduate students working on a cross-disciplinary team.

Researchers and program directors often apply an audit trail to evaluate a process or procedure. However, an audit trail also provides a mechanism for researchers to be transparent about their research processes in a way that allows the reader to evaluate its rigor. My goal in presenting an audit trail of my research is to present my study as a specific example to assist those just beginning their qualitative research journey. This paper introduces aspects of the qualitative research tradition for readers who may not be familiar with this approach, including common terminology.

My study borrowed from multiple qualitative methodologies including ethnographic and case study research. I took on the role of a participant observer in an undergraduate cross-disciplinary team and explored the development of undergraduate students while they participated in the cross-disciplinary team project. I collected data from multiple sources such as direct observations, interviews, memos, and written assignments from students. I made decisions about how to organize and analyze the large amount of data I collected. This paper will detail my emergent study design and the decisions I made throughout my study.

The unique nature of my real-time data collection approach with undergraduate students not only provided a deep, rich description of each team member’s experience throughout the project, but it also introduced distinct challenges to my study. These challenges ranged from students adding or dropping the project during my study to balancing my desire to collect additional data with the students’ busy schedules. I also had to creating an honest and straightforward consent form that undergraduate students will understand. This paper will present my experiences as an example for others who may be considering a similar type of study and provide suggestions that are transferable to different contexts.

Anderson, R. K., & Martin, J. P. (2017, June), A Real Report from the Trenches of a Ph.D. Dissertation: Exploring the Inherent "Messiness" of Engineering Education Research Through an Audit Trail Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--27504

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