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Conceptual Representations in the Workplace and Classroom Settings: A Comparative Ethnography

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

ERM Technical Session 15: Perspectives on Engineering Careers and Workplaces

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Matthew Stephen Barner Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

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PhD student at Oregon State University working under Dr. Shane Brown.

Research interests include: engineering education, diffusions of innovation, concerns-based adoption model, conceptual change theory, workplace learning and earthquake engineering.

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Shane A. Brown P.E. Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

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Shane Brown is an associate professor and Associate School Head in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. His research interests include conceptual change and situated cognition. He received the NSF CAREER award in 2010 and is working on a study to characterize practicing engineers’ understandings of core engineering concepts. He is a Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Engineering Education.

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Sean Lyle Gestson Oregon State University

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Sean Gestson is a recent graduate from the University of Portland where he studied Civil Engineering with a focus in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering. He is currently conducting Engineering Education research while pursuing a doctoral degree in Civil Engineering at Oregon State University. His research interests include problem solving, decision making, and engineering curriculum development.

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Situated cognition research demonstrates that different contexts wherein learning occurs and knowledge is applied shape our conceptual understanding. Within engineering education and practice this means that practitioners, students, and instructors demonstrate different ways of representing their conceptual knowledge due to the different contexts wherein they learn and apply engineering concepts. The purpose of this paper is to present themes on how practitioners, students, and instructors represent fundamental structural engineering concepts within the contexts of structural engineering design. By representation of concepts we mean the ways in which practitioners, students, and instructors portray and demonstrate their conceptual understanding of concepts through the social and material contexts of the workplace and classroom environments. Previous research on learning and engineering education has shown the influence that social and material contexts within these environments have on our knowing and understanding. The researchers use ethnographic methods consisting of workplace and classroom observations, interviews with practitioners, students, and instructors, and documentation of workplace and academic artifacts—such as drawings, calculations, and notes—to access practitioners’, students’, and instructors’ conceptual representations. These ethnographic methods are conducted at a private engineering firm and in 300 and 400 level structural engineering courses. Preliminary results indicate that instructors’ conceptual representations in the classroom aim to enhance students’ broader understanding of these concepts; whereas students’ conceptual representations are focused towards utility in solving homework and exam problems. Practitioners’ conceptual representations are more flexible and adapt to project and workplace constraints. These results seem to indicate that even when instructors emphasize broader conceptual knowledge, the academic incentives behind homework and test scores lead to more academically focused conceptual representations by students. Furthermore, practitioners’ conceptual representations indicate the necessity of conceptual fluency in the workplace, which contrasts with the rigidity of conceptual representations that students develop in the classroom. This comparison between workplace and academic conceptual representations enhances our understanding of the extent to which students, instructors, and practitioners share similar or different conceptual representations within the domain of structural engineering. This, in turn, may lead to guided curriculum reform efforts aimed at better preparing structural engineering students for their professional careers.

Barner, M. S., & Brown, S. A., & Gestson, S. L. (2019, June), Conceptual Representations in the Workplace and Classroom Settings: A Comparative Ethnography Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32534

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