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Boundary Work between Engineering and Engineering Technology: Knowledge, Expertise, and Power at Southern Polytechnic State University

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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

Institutional Perspectives and Boundary Work

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1.1 - 23.1.23



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Paper Authors


Ron D Dempsey Southern Polytechnic State University

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Dr. Dempsey currently serves as Vice President for University Advancement at Southern Polytechnic State University. Dr. Dempsey has taught sociology and been a college administrator for the past 20 years at both private and public institutions of higher education. Dr. Dempsey is completing a second Ph.D. at Georgia Tech in the area of History and Sociology of Science and Technology.

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Boundary Work between Engineering and Engineering  Technology: Knowledge, Expertise, and Power at Southern  Polytechnic State University The paper is a sociological case study of the boundary work between the engineering technology programs and engineering programs at Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU).  Boundary work is a series of strategic processes and actions, by which groups create, manipulate, transform, dissolve, and reform their symbolic and social boundaries.  This paper argues that group boundaries are created and maintained through a group’s knowledge, expertise, and power.  These elements help distinguish the group from others. For sixty years, Southern Polytechnic offered engineering technology degrees.  Over time SPSU’s engineering technology programs morphed into curriculums which were degree and content equivalent to engineering degrees and whose graduates were employed as engineers. Though the engineering technology programs at SPSU, with their emphasis on hands­on, application based education, were the premier degrees of the institution and associated industries, the programs suffered an inferior status in regards to PE licensing, program prestige, and lack of standardization of engineering technology degrees across the region and nation. In 2009, Southern Polytechnic State University was granted the ability by their state board of regents to offer engineering degrees in mechanical, electrical, and civil disciplines.  The paper examines the interaction and boundary creation/maintenance/defense between the engineering technology programs and their engineering counterparts.  This theoretical framework pays particular attention to the use of knowledge, expertise, and power as key components in the boundary work between engineering technology and engineering.  The paper offers as data a brief history of engineering technology in the United States as well as the history of engineering technology at SPSU.   This historical data demonstrates a continuing confusion about engineering technology and the role of an engineering technician or technologist in the engineering fields.   Collected data will include the academic curriculum from SPSU’s engineering and engineering technology degrees, program enrollment figures, responses from an online survey of the engineering technology and engineering faculty members, and interviews with key administrations, deans, and senior faculty. The paper argues that the introduction of civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering programs at SPSU has caused a “boundary crisis” in the corresponding engineering technology programs.  With such overlap in knowledge and expertise, it is difficult to distinguish between the two degree programs even though the academic divisions seek demarcation.  Social and symbolic boundaries become blurred and external groups have difficulty in knowing the differences between the two.  The effect of this “boundary crisis” is materializing in the declining enrollments in the engineering technology programs that have corresponding engineering programs.

Dempsey, R. D. (2013, June), Boundary Work between Engineering and Engineering Technology: Knowledge, Expertise, and Power at Southern Polytechnic State University Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19010

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