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Defining Culture: The Way We Do Things Round Here

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.323.1 - 6.323.14

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Elizabeth Godfrey

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Session 3630

Defining Culture: The way we do things round here

Elizabeth Godfrey The University of Auckland


The call for “ a culture change in engineering education, ultimately to extend throughout the profession” in the Australian Review of Engineering Education: Changing the Culture 1 threw a spotlight not only on the need for change but the need for change in the culture. In recommending a “more outward looking culture attuned to the real concerns of communities”, better communication skills, and political and social awareness, the Australian review echoed discussions occurring simultaneously in the UK, USA and Canada. Increasingly in the last five years, the term “culture” has entered the engineering education discourse and it seems implicitly understood that engineering education has a distinctive culture, recognizable to all its practitioners. The unitary and homogeneous nature of this culture is itself open to question, but engineering educators undoubtedly recognize practices and behaviors, that transcend differences in engineering specialization and institutions. The culture of academic engineering has been said to use the ‘sink or swim’ model of education 2 and most courses have in common features such as the immutable nature of curriculum content, little choice in selection of subjects, a mechanistic rather than holistic treatment, and a high emphasis on problem definition and solving within specific criteria - usually involving the appropriate application of mathematical equations 3.

A perceived flaw in the calls for cultural change is the assumption that engineering educators are familiar with the theories and models of culture and cultural change, which have their origins in anthropology and sociology. Engineering educators are much less likely than social scientists to have common understandings of the relationship between the concept of culture and observable behaviors and practices. The Australian Review which highlighted a need to recognize “the differences between the values that underpin the existing culture and the espoused values to which it aspires”(p. 21) did not make clear what those current underlying values were and stated that it was “imperative to question implicit assumptions, priorities and practices (p.5). Before cultural change can be effected, I believe that a conceptual framework that is accessible to engineering educators is needed to define the current culture, how it is formed and maintained. In particular, I felt there was a need to be able to demonstrate how (or if) the espoused values and ideals of engineering education were manifested in the behaviors and practices that form the “lived experience” or enacted culture.

Culture has been described as “webs of significance” 4 and engineering education is influenced by multiple cultural configurations. As an academic discipline, engineering education takes place within the context of the wider university culture in which tacitly accepted theories of teaching and learning are derived from long-accepted practices of course delivery and assessment. Academic disciplines, described by Becher as academic tribes 5, are acknowledged to have their own cultures “each with their own way of perceiving the world”. Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2001, American Society for Engineering Education

Godfrey, E. (2001, June), Defining Culture: The Way We Do Things Round Here Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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