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How Engineers Negotiate Domain Boundaries in a Complex, Interdisciplinary Engineering Project

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Learning from Industry

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Grace Panther Oregon State University

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Grace Panther is a doctoral student conducting research in engineering education. She has experience conducting workshops at engineering education conferences and is currently a guest editor for a special issue of European Journal of Engineering Education on inclusive learning environments. Her research includes material development, faculty discourses on gender, and defining knowledge domains of students and engineers.

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Devlin Montfort Oregon State University

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Dr. Montfort is an Assistant Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University

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Zachary Pirtle Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters

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Pirtle is a PhD candidate in Systems Engineering at George Washington University and is an engineer at NASA supporting integration for the new Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and associated ground systems. He has written on engineering epistemology, innovation and the connection between engineering and democracy.

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This paper is a research paper. Many engineering problems require efficient coordination across disciplinary boundaries. Few studies exist about how engineers negotiate and coordinate the knowledge required for working across these boundaries on large, intricate engineering problems. We approach knowledge as a complex and socially constructed system. Knowledge systems are inherently difficult to study because they are dynamic and ephemeral: they are only visible in interactions among the individuals of the community. The purpose of this research is to gain a better understanding of the knowledge system of practicing engineers through ethnographic observations of their practices.

We used an ethnography-inspired situative approach based on observable knowledge practices to study the knowledge system of practicing engineers. Data was collected through observation of a Critical Design Review (CDR) of a satellite project at NASA. A CDR occurs after the technical design and specifications of a project nears completion and brings together the scientists and engineers on a project to present their plans to an external review board. A CDR therefore provides a unique opportunity to witness how knowledge is exchanged and negotiated within a complex, interdisciplinary setting. The resulting ethnographic observations were analyzed and categorized into peak events. Peak events were identified when successive questions were asked pertaining to the engineering design. Focusing on these events is a useful lens to get insight about the overall knowledge system because they can represent moments where different understandings and disciplinary perspectives emerge. This paper reports on one such peak event concerning the thermal design of the satellite. We focus on one peak to provide sufficient detail so that the knowledge system and its context can be understood. Thermal design of a spacecraft is complex and dynamic with the engineer having to design for drastically different external thermal environments while balancing the changing thermal demands of internal systems. The thermal design discussion provides a particularly thorough example of a knowledge system since the engineer explained, justified, negotiated, and defended knowledge within a social setting. For example, a reviewer asked the engineer if they had taken into account what they considered to be the worst-case scenario. This required an extended discussion to negotiate the criteria by which the credibility and relevance of design components were assessed and to create a shared meaning of what “worst-case” meant. This discussion was centrally important to the technical success of the project and was unequivocally “engineering,” even though it was light on technical detail. This aspect of engineering work is focused more on the epistemic criteria by which knowledge is assessed (i.e. on the foundations of the knowledge system), rather than the technical knowledge of the design itself.

Engineering students do not get much practice or instruction in explicitly negotiating knowledge systems and epistemic standards. Although this analysis is limited to a single discussion, we argue that such discussions are important in many engineering projects. Understanding how engineers communicate across different epistemic and disciplinary viewpoints is another step towards creating an engineering curriculum that more closely aligns with engineering practice. Furthermore, it shows that engineering knowledge is not only something to be possessed but instead something that must be negotiated within an interconnected and socially situated knowledge system.

Panther, G., & Montfort, D., & Pirtle, Z. (2017, June), How Engineers Negotiate Domain Boundaries in a Complex, Interdisciplinary Engineering Project Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28445

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