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Engineering Practice as an Emerging Field of Inquiry: a Historical Overview

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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

The Philosophy of Engineering and Technological Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

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Paper Authors


Bill Williams CEG-IST Universidade de Lisboa Orcid 16x16

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Bill Williams originally trained as a chemist at the National University of Ireland and went on to work in education in Ireland, UK, Eritrea, Kenya, Mozambique and Portugal.
He lectures on technical communication at the Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal and is a member of the CEG-IST, Universidade de Lisboa research centre.

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Jose Figueiredo IST, Universidade de Lisboa

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PhD in Industrial Engineering and Management “Sociotechnical approaches to inter-institutional Information Systems design”, IST, Technical University of Lisbon, MBA in Information Management at UCP (Portuguese Catholic University - Lisbon), Engineer Degree in Electronics and Digital Systems (Coimbra University). Current Professor at the Engineering and Management Department of IST (Engineering school of Universidade de Lisboa)

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Perception of the nature of engineering practice is an aspect of technology literacy of direct interest to engineering educators, one that impacts a variety of actors: potential and present engineering students, engineering faculty and the general public. For much of the twentieth century there was a broad consensus that what engineers do is apply engineering science to solve technical problems. However from the 1970’s onwards there has been an accumulating body of empirical research which strongly suggests that we also need to consider the sociotechnical dimension to be able to describe engineering work. Furthermore since the beginning of the twenty first century there are notable signs of the emergence of engineering practice studies as a distinct and evidence-based area of study. The authors present a position paper which proposes that engineering practice studies can claim to be an emergent and increasingly important field of inquiry, one that has a significant contribution to make to decisions about knowledge and skill development of engineering professionals and to the training of future engineers. We aim to demonstrate the value of promoting an informed discourse about this field based on the small but growing body of empirical data on workplace practice that already exists scattered through a range of disciplinary areas. The emergence of this field of inquiry is concisely exemplified using Fensham’s framework to map significant lines of research currently being carried out in various parts of the world. This recent emergence is then put in perspective by setting out a timeline of empirical studies of engineering practice carried out in the US, Europe and Australia from the 19th century to today. Finally, significant implications for educators of the empirical findings from of this field are set out.

Williams, B., & Figueiredo, J. (2016, June), Engineering Practice as an Emerging Field of Inquiry: a Historical Overview Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26660

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