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Defining Engineering Education

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

The Philosophy of Engineering and Technological Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.357.1 - 24.357.24



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Paper Authors


Alan Cheville Bucknell University

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Alan Cheville studied optoelectronics and ultrafast optics at Rice University, followed by fourteen years as a faculty member at Oklahoma State University working on terahertz frequencies and engineering education. While at Oklahoma State he developed courses in photonics and engineering design. After serving for two and a half years as a program director in engineering education at the National Science Foundation, he took a chair position in electrical engineering at Bucknell University. He is currently interested in engineering design education, engineering education policy, and the philosophy of engineering education.

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Defining Engineering EducationThe big question addressed in this paper is to explore how the complex interface betweenengineering education and the larger contexts in which it is embedded change over time. Thesecontexts—social, intellectual, economic, and more—define both the educational approachestaken and how various approaches are valued. These contexts are themselves inter-related,forming a complex system of which engineering education is a part. The interface betweenengineering education and the larger system is not unidirectional; that is environmental changescan affect engineering education, but so too can engineering education affect the largerenvironment.One can explore the relationship of engineering education to the larger system from manydifferent perspectives. This paper adopts a philosophical perspective since current discussionson the purpose, meaning, influence, and value of engineering education as it intersects the largersystem are at this time conceptually imprecise. An assertion of the paper is that we currentlylack a shared, meaningful conceptual ontology to discuss engineering educations place insociety. It is not that the needed concepts don’t exist, rather we do not share a commonvocabulary. Philosophy provides a method to gather and translate these concepts, then begin tounderstand their claims and limits of these claims.While the breadth of the topic makes it impossible to cover in one paper, the starting point, andfocus of this paper, is how engineering is defined for the purpose of engineering education.Definitions of engineering matter since they inform what we as educators should do. Definitionsalso point out potential conceptual imprecisions; if we do not interpret a definition the same waythen there is a potential for miscommunication and subsidiary ideas may themselves beimprecise. Furthermore definitions are fundamental to philosophy, and our philosophy, whetherexplicit or not, determines how we educate. Definitions serve as objectives, helping to determinethe aims of education, whether, like Newman, you believe the aim of has value in itself orwhether education serves a more utilitarian purpose to prepare an individual for a productive rolein society.This paper will explore changes to definitions of engineering education drawn from policydocuments from the British Institution of Civil Engineers in the early 19th century through theMann report and up to modern work in the National Academy of Engineering. The focus of thispaper is on engineering definitions in the context of policy since policy makers play a large rolein setting directions for engineering education. These explicit or implicit definitions provideinsights into how and why engineering education is this way and not that. The definitions arealso illuminate tensions, or misalignments, in how we currently teach engineering.

Cheville, A. (2014, June), Defining Engineering Education Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20248

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