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Disciplinary Influences on the Professional Identity of Civil Engineering Students: Starting the Conversation

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Civil Engineering Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Cassandra J McCall Virginia Tech

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Cassandra is currently a PhD student in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Her research interests include student engineering identity development, communication practices and discourse strategies, power negotiation, and student artifact development. She earned her Masters (2011) and Bachelors (2009) degrees in Civil Engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, SD.

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Denise Rutledge Simmons P.E. Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, and an affiliate faculty of the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in civil engineering and a graduate certificate in engineering education – all from Clemson University. Until 2012, she was the director of the Savannah River Environmental Sciences Field Station. Dr. Simmons has nearly fourteen years of engineering and project management experience working with public utility companies, a project management consulting company, and a software company. She is a registered professional engineer, project management professional and LEED accredited professional. Her career vision is to become a global leader in research that builds capacity and broadens the participation of students completing construction and engineering degrees and entering the technological workforce by shaping practices and policies in retention, informal learning, pedagogy, professional competency, workforce development and life-long learning. Her research interests are in investigating students’ development of leadership skills and other professional competencies and in students' involvement in curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Dr. Simmons is a NSF CAREER award recipient for her research entitled, “Investigating Co-Curricular Participation of Students Underrepresented in Engineering” and a recently funded NSF award entitled “Preparing a 21st Century STEM Workforce: Defining & Measuring Leadership in Engineering Education” focused on the construction industry. Dr. Simmons is also a 2016 recipient of the College of Engineering Dean's Award for Outstanding New Assistant Professor and the Black Graduate Student Organization's ​​Lisa Tabor Award for Community Service.

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Lisa D. McNair Virginia Tech

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Lisa D. McNair is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, where she also serves as co-Director of the VT Engineering Communication Center (VTECC) and CATALYST Fellow at the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). Her research interests include interdisciplinary collaboration, design education, communication studies, identity theory and reflective practice. Projects supported by the National Science Foundation include exploring disciplines as cultures, interdisciplinary pedagogy for pervasive computing design; writing across the curriculum in Statics courses; as well as a CAREER award to explore the use of e-portfolios to promote professional identity and reflective practice.

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As the discipline of civil engineering has evolved from an apprentice-based trade to a socially-engaged profession, the role of the civil engineer has responded to shifts within the ever-changing culture of society. These shifts and historical events have directly influenced what is considered to be valued civil engineering knowledge, behaviors, and practices that we teach to students during their undergraduate careers.

As part of a larger grounded theory study that is currently being conducted by the authors, the purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, we present the topic of professional identity formation as heavily influenced by unique historical events that shape the civil engineering discipline. . To establish the connection between identity formation and the history of civil engineering, we interpret historical events as constituents that create a disciplinary identity that is communicated to and subjectively applied by students during their undergraduate careers. Second, we hope to promote and invoke conversations surrounding the relevancy of civil engineering professional identity formation in engineering education among our colleagues within the technical disciplines.

Through this paper, we add to ongoing research exploring the professional formation of engineering identities and promote discussions surround this topic at the disciplinary level. While most research conducted on identity formation has been generalized to include all or most engineering disciplines, we focus our discussion solely on professional identity formation within the civil engineering discipline. To reinforce the relationship between the history of the civil engineering profession and students’ professional identity formation, we review the literature on these two areas of inquiry. In particular, we will frame our paper using the following key discussion points: 1) providing a brief overview of key historical events of civil engineering in the United States; 2) discussing the influence of this history on instructor pedagogies and student learning within civil engineering education; and 3) conceptualizing this learning process as a means of professional identity formation.

From this work, we will begin to understand how major historical shifts within our discipline maintain the potential to impact its future as we educate the next generation of civil engineering students. To conclude this paper, we will introduce current research that is being conducted by the authors to further understand the nuances of professional identity formation in undergraduate civil engineering students and how instructors may help or hinder that development.

McCall, C. J., & Simmons, D. R., & McNair, L. D. (2016, June), Disciplinary Influences on the Professional Identity of Civil Engineering Students: Starting the Conversation Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26850

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