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Engineering Education: Targeted Learning Outcomes Or Accidental Competencies?

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Knowing Our Students II

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.557.1 - 11.557.14



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Paper Authors


Joachim Walther University of Queensland

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JOACHIM WALTHER graduated from The Darmstadt University of Technology (Germany) with a Bachelor in Mechanical and Process Engineering and a “Diplom” in General Mechanical Engineering. As a PhD student he is now member of the Catalyst Research Centre for Society and Technology at the University of Queensland. His research interests lie in the areas of cognitive and social aspects of engineering design and education.

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David Radcliffe University of Queensland

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DAVID RADCLIFFE is the Thiess Professor of Engineering Education and Professional Development in the School of Engineering at the University of Queensland. His research draws on and involves collaboration with the social sciences including education and anthropology. David is co-director of the Catalyst Centre and Director of Professional Development in the School. He was a National Teaching Fellow, in 1994 and a Boeing-
A.D. Welliver Fellow, in 1999.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Engineering education: Targeted learning outcomes or accidental competencies? Abstract

This paper presents preliminary results of research into the nature of engineering competence. Data was gathered in focus groups with participants from Australia, Germany and the US using critical incident techniques. The study has found evidence to suggest that some crucial engineering competencies are not predominantly achieved through targeted education. The first part critically analyses the history of the competency movement with special regard to the application of learning outcomes in engineering education. The two problems identified in this context are the lack of a conclusive definition of competency and the gap in the understanding of engineering competency between education and practice. On this basis, the concept of Accidental Competencies is introduced. Accidental Competencies are not achieved through intentional forms of learning but emerge from the coaction of curricular elements and other aspects of the educational process. Illustrative quotes from the focus groups are presented and analyzed with regard to Accidental Competency formation. Subsequently, a contextual model is introduced illustrating the coaction of elements surrounding the educational process in the formation of competencies. The potential advantages of the concept of Accidental Competency as a unique mode of enquiry into the nature of engineering competence are then discussed. Finally details of the direction of the further research are outlined.


In the last decade global economic, technical and social changes have led to a sustained transformation of the discipline of engineering. Pressing issues such as increasingly intense international economic competition, the changing role of engineers in society and cross- disciplinary influences on traditional engineering pose an enormous challenge to engineering education programs.

The wide-ranging implications of those changes were already anticipated in both the 1993 ASEE report1 “Engineering Education for a changing world” and Engineers Australia’s 1996 review2 “Changing the culture: Engineering education into the future”. Both advocated fundamental changes in engineering education and the recommendations subsequently resulted in the development of ABET’s Program Outcomes3 and Engineers Australia’s Graduate Attributes4 (AMEA), respectively (For a comparison of the two systems see Mann & Radcliffe5). This initiated a paradigm shift in engineering education from the previously input-, content- and process-oriented system to an outcomes-based approach.

The concept of outcomes-based education defines a set of educational goals in the form of attributes, or competencies, which are to be achieved through the learning activities of the course. Adopting this approach in engineering education and specifically in the accreditation of programs was seen to serve a dual purpose: defining an educational goal or a set of attributes without specifying process with which the are to be achieved was seen as a means of fostering diversity of engineering programs2 whilst ensuring that “Graduates from an accredited program are adequately prepared to enter and continue the practice of engineering”2. This meant in particular that new attributes especially in areas of multidisciplinary teamwork and communication (Graduate Attributes ii and vi in AMEA4)

Walther, J., & Radcliffe, D. (2006, June), Engineering Education: Targeted Learning Outcomes Or Accidental Competencies? Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--1086

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2006 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015