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Discourses and Social Worlds in Engineering Education: Preparing Problem-solvers for Engineering Practice

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Identity and Culture

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.471.1 - 25.471.15



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Paper Authors


Elliot P. Douglas University of Florida

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Elliot P. Douglas is Associate Chair, Associate Professor, and Distinguished Teaching Scholar in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida. His research activities are in the areas of active learning, problem solving, critical thinking, and use of qualitative methodologies in engineering education. Specifically, he has published and presented work on the use of guided inquiry as an active learning technique for engineering, how critical thinking is used in practice by students, and how different epistemological stances are enacted in engineering education research. He has been involved in faculty development activities since 1998, through the ExCEEd Teaching Workshops of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Essential Teaching Seminars of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the U.S. National Science Foundation-sponsored SUCCEED Coalition. He has also been active in promoting qualitative research methods in engineering education through workshops presented as part of an NSF project. He has received several awards for his work, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the Ralph Teetor Education Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers, being named a University of Florida Distinguished Teaching Scholar, and being named the University of Florida Teacher of the Year for 2003-04. He is a member of the American Society for Engineering Education and the American Educational Research Association and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Polymer Reviews.

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Mirka Koro-Ljungberg University of Florida

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David J. Therriault University of Florida

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Christine S. Lee University of Florida


Nathan McNeill University of Florida

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Nathan McNeill is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, where he is studying the factors that contribute to success in open-ended problem solving. He has a Ph.D. in engineering education from Purdue University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a B.S. in engineering from Walla Walla University.

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Shifting discourses and social worlds in engineering education: Preparing problem-solvers for engineering practiceSocial and linguistic representational systems, also known discourses, shape how individualsperceive their identities. Within an engineering context, discourses shape both the way in whichstudents perceive of their roles as engineers, as well as the way in which social forces shapestudents’ emerging professional roles as engineers. Discourses are productive, representational,and distributive processes and forces that exist in relation to social norms, beliefs, and values.Discourses also represent and change practices, processes, products, and artifacts of thinking,feeling, believing, valuing, and acting. In this paper we investigate discourses present inengineering education by examining the discourses that influence how students approachproblem-solving. Our research question asks: What discourses shape students’ problem solvingpractices and identities as engineers?In this paper we focus on data from interviews with eight senior materials science andengineering students at a large southeastern university. This qualitative study is a part of largermixed methods study of engineering students’ problem solving processes. In this studyparticipants solved four engineering problems in a think-aloud session and then were interviewedafterward about their problem solving approaches. A modification of Gee’s discourse analysismethod was used to analyze the interview data. First, we analyzed students’ motifs and identifiedtheir top three I-statements. Next, we developed each participant’s identity and associatedcharacteristics based on the dominant motifs and I-statement usage by each person. Identitiessuch as ‘Process Reflector’, ‘Organizer’ and ‘Self-Doubter’ were considered illuminative ofparticipants’ discourses in relation to their problem-solving experiences. Next, discourses wereidentified that influenced the identities that emerged from each participants’ interview in order todraw connections to wider influences in the social and political landscape.From this analysis process, seven discourses were identified: pedagogical, economic,individualistic, peer collaboration, math, research, and ‘engineering problem solving’.Pedagogical and engineering problem solving discourses were the most frequent discoursespresent in students’ interviews. Many of the interviews represented academic discourseshighlighting the practices, expectations, and language uses associated with being a student. Weinterpreted that these students perceived themselves mainly as students navigating the realm oftheir academic majors with professors and classmates, rather than emerging engineers whosepractices are affected by conditions of industry. It could be postulated that problem solving in anacademic setting does not encourage students to consider alternative discourses related toindustry and fails to promote connections to social worlds beyond classroom settings.The results from this study suggest that students approach problem-solving from an academicperspective and do not connect their experiences in school with the discourses associated withpracticing engineers. This apparent disconnect between “academic engineering” and engineeringpractice leads to important questions about the education of future engineers: What are theimplications for how students ultimately practice engineering? What pedagogical practicespromote self-identification of students as engineers? In order to connect students to thediscourses associated with engineering practice, alternate approaches are needed which movestudents beyond the limits of the academic setting.

Douglas, E. P., & Koro-Ljungberg, M., & Therriault, D. J., & Lee, C. S., & McNeill, N. (2012, June), Discourses and Social Worlds in Engineering Education: Preparing Problem-solvers for Engineering Practice Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21229

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