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Early-career Engineers at the Workplace: Meaningful Highs, Lows, and Innovative Work Efforts

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation Division Technical Session 4

Tagged Division

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation

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Paper Authors


Mathias J. Klenk Technical University of Munich

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Mathias graduated from Technical University of Munich (TUM) with a B.Sc. '15 and M.Sc '17 in Management and Technology. His majors were Computer Science, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He was also a participant in the entrepreneurial qualification program "Manage&More". This is a program of the center for innovation and business creation at the Technical University Munich (“UnternehmerTUM”) which supports innovation and startup projects. While at UnternehmerTUM, Mathias was involved in developing concepts and material design for BMW's logistics department, as well as helping researchers of the Fraunhofer Institute in founding a company in the smart home IoT sector. He currently works for the startup UnifyID as software engineer in San Francisco and founds is own startup Coinance, which is a cryptocurrency portfolio management app.

Previously he joined Stanford's Designing Education Lab in 2016 to learn more about the role of motivational psychology in engineering education, where he wrote his Master's thesis about work experience and the role of innovation for software engineers in their early years of working life.

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Tua A. Björklund Aalto University Design Factory

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Tua Björklund is one of the co-founders and the head of research at Aalto University Design Factory. She conducts and leads research, teaches product design, and facilitates pedagogical development at the Design Factory. Tua has a DSc degree in industrial engineering and management and a MA degree in cognitive science.

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Shannon Katherine Gilmartin SKG Analysis Orcid 16x16

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Shannon K. Gilmartin, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Scholar at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and Adjunct Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. She is also Managing Director of SKG Analysis, a research consulting firm. Her expertise and interests focus on education and workforce development in engineering and science fields.

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Sheri Sheppard Stanford University

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Sheri D. Sheppard, Ph.D., P.E., is professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Besides teaching both undergraduate and graduate design and education related classes at Stanford University, she conducts research on engineering education and work-practices, and applied finite element analysis. From 1999-2008 she served as a Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, leading the Foundation’s engineering study (as reported in Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field). In addition, in 2011 Dr. Sheppard was named as co-PI of a national NSF innovation center (Epicenter), and leads an NSF program at Stanford on summer research experiences for high school teachers. Her industry experiences includes engineering positions at Detroit's "Big Three:" Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, and Chrysler Corporation.

At Stanford she has served a chair of the faculty senate, and recently served as Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

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Beyond engineering skills, today’s graduates are expected to have a number of professional skills by the time they enter the working world. Increasingly, innovation is one of the arenas where professional engineers should be adept at operating. However, in order to educate our students for contributing to innovation activities in their organizations, we need a better understanding of the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are relevant for early-career engineers in their development efforts. As a starting point to add to this understanding, we start by asking: what does meaningful engineering work look like in the eyes of early career engineers? We then go on to consider engineering work that is not only meaningful but also innovative, asking: What does innovative work look like in the eyes of early career engineers? Finally, we consider: How do innovative work and engineering work more generally compare?

Based on qualitative in-depth semi-structured interviews, this paper analyzes the work experiences of 13 young engineers in their first years of work after graduating from universities in the United States. Interviewee-reported critical incidents of top and bottom moments, as well as experiences in creating, advancing and implementing new ideas in work, were coded into different dimensions of learning experiences according to Mezirow’s [1] transformative learning theory in order to understand better what these experiences comprise. Many positively experienced innovation efforts were related to implementing new features or components to products or process improvements, and collaboration and feedback played an important role in these efforts. Negatively experienced innovation efforts, in contrast, were related to a lack in implementation, solutions and resources. Top and bottom moments were strongly tied to the social dimension of work: top moments were typically related to camaraderie with peers or recognition coming from managers, and bottom experiences with an absence of social connections in addition to falling short of one’s own expectations.

The results suggest that managers should be cognizant of the importance of social connections and feedback cycles with their young engineers who are looking for guidance and validation of their efforts. For educators, the results highlight the importance of equipping our graduates with skills suited to navigate this active, social landscape of engineering practice. There are more challenges to tackle in today’s educational settings to prepare students for the collaboration, people-coordination, presentation, and community-building skills they will need in their professional lives.

Klenk, M. J., & Björklund, T. A., & Gilmartin, S. K., & Sheppard, S. (2018, June), Early-career Engineers at the Workplace: Meaningful Highs, Lows, and Innovative Work Efforts Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30347

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