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Informal Mentorship of New Engineers in the Workplace

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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


Pryce Davis University of Nottingham

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Pryce Davis is an Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Nottingham. He received his Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University. His research interests include learning in informal settings and public engagement with science.

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Alexandra Vinson Northwestern University

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Alexandra H. Vinson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology & Science Studies from the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests include professional education in medicine and STEM fields.

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Reed Stevens Northwestern University

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Reed Stevens is a Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. He holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Pomona College and PhD in Cognition and Development from the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Stevens began his professional career as a mathematics teacher. For the past two decades, he has studied STEM learning both in and out of school. His research seeks to understand how and when learning environments are productive for people and to translate those findings into practical use in the design and resdesign of learning environments. In recent years and in collaboration with colleagues at Northwestern, he created FUSE Studios to reimagine STEAM education around the values of innovation, making, and collaboration ( Since 2012, FUSE has been implemented in more than 135 school and community sites around the US and will soon begin in Helsinki, Finland. Stevens co-led two large National Science Foundation (NSF) research centers—the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE) and the Learning in Informal and Formal Environments Center (LIFE)—and has received numerous research grants from NSF and various private foundations. Articles of his relevant to the engineering education research community include “Becoming an engineer: Toward a three dimensional view of engineering learning” (2008) in the Journal of Engineering Education and "Professional engineering work” (2014) in the Cambridge handbook of engineering education research.

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Despite the long history of apprenticeship in engineering (Wilson, 1965), little is understood about the transition from school to work in the modern engineering workforce. How do new engineers gain experience and knowledge while also gaining trust and establishing themselves with more senior engineers and their company? In this work we draw on a large ethnographic study of new engineers in their first year on the job to characterize the role and nature of apprenticeship-like training in the modern engineering workforce. In our analysis, apprenticeship on the job appears to be mostly ad hoc and fleeting with rare instances of direct intentional instruction (as opposed to in-the-moment correction or feedback). Furthermore, learning arrangements between new and more senior engineers are constrained by several factors, including the rigidity of organizational hierarchy, the thoroughness of division of labor, and the senior engineers willingness to actively mentor. For example, we see how new engineers attempt to gain knowledge and experiences from more senior engineers, but are often rebuked due to corporate structure and hierarchy. Yet, at the same time, we see examples of new engineers successfully finding senior co-workers who recognize the importance of training them to navigate these restrictive structures and hierarchies for the benefit of not only the new engineer, but also the senior engineer and the company itself. We find a variety of learning arrangements, including isolated new engineers struggling to find a place in their new work, while also learning new skills, and fully collaborative work between new and senior engineers. We use these findings to suggest ways that engineering schools and companies can help support and enrich the learning of new engineers in the workforce.

Davis, P., & Vinson, A., & Stevens, R. (2017, June), Informal Mentorship of New Engineers in the Workplace Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28527

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