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A thematic Analysis Comparing Critical Thinking in Engineering and Humanities Undergraduates

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

ERM Potpourri

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.124.1 - 26.124.11



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Paper Authors


Amy Elizabeth Bumbaco University of Florida

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Amy Bumbaco is a PhD candidate in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at University
of Florida, USA. She is working on engineering education research as her focus. Her current research interests include first year engineering education, critical thinking, qualitative methodologies, and peer review. She received her BS in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech. She founded an ASEE student chapter at University of Florida and continues sharing engineering education research with fellow members.

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Elliot P. Douglas University of Florida

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Elliot P. Douglas is Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Dean’s Fellow for Engineering Education, and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida. His research interests are in the areas of active learning pedagogies, problem-solving, critical thinking, diversity in engineering, and qualitative methodologies.

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A thematic analysis comparing critical thinking in engineering and humanities undergraduatesThis paper examines the meaning and enactment of critical thinking for engineering andhumanities undergraduate students. Critical thinking is considered an important attribute inengineers and there is a desire to graduate engineers with the ability to think critically. However,humanities departments believe that they are a key contributor to fostering creative and criticalthinking. Thus, in this paper we seek to provide an initial exploration of the similarities anddifferences of what critical thinking is for humanities and engineering students. We address thefollowing research question: What are the similarities and differences between humanities andengineering students in their perceptions and enactment of critical thinking?Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five undergraduate Materials Science andEngineering students and four undergraduate English students. These interviews focused on theways in which students used critical thinking in their classes. Interviews were analyzed usingthematic analysis. Statements in the interview transcriptions were coded with descriptive labelsand these codes were then categorized into themes.English and Materials Science and Engineering students differed in the specific way criticalthinking occurred. A major theme that arose for engineering students was that critical thinkingwas often similar or equivalent to problem solving, with many of the underlying categorieswithin this theme reflecting steps in the problem-solving process. However, English students sawcritical thinking as a way of gaining a deep understanding of literature and forming anddefending an argument. They would perform these actions by understanding others’ analyses,comparing and applying the resulting conclusions, and then placing both the literature being readand others’ conclusions into the context within which they were created. Doing so allowed themto connect ideas either to their own life, to readings, or to the world in general.There were both similarities and differences in the ways the two groups of students consideredcritical thinking. Common themes included affective aspects such as an interest or willingness tothink critically, the use of resources as a part of critical thinking, and the belief that engagementin class was a key aspect of learning to think critically. The primary difference was thatengineering students stated that critical thinking is not explicitly discussed or addressed in theirclasses while English students encountered critical thinking or analysis more frequently.The results of this study suggest that at least some aspects of critical thinking may be unique toengineering, but also that engineering students seem to have a less sophisticated view of how tothink critically. Such differences may reflect the way engineering is taught; the classes of theseEnglish students were primarily discussions among the students rather than dissemination ofinformation. Following this model of learning through active learning techniques may provide ameans to enhance the critical thinking skills of engineering students.

Bumbaco, A. E., & Douglas, E. P. (2015, June), A thematic Analysis Comparing Critical Thinking in Engineering and Humanities Undergraduates Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23465

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