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Institutional Obstacles to Ethnographic Observation in Engineering Industry

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Research Methods II: Meeting the Challenges of Engineering Education Research

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


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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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 and enculturation in medicine and STEM fields.

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This research paper describes the challenges our research team has encountered in conducting a study of the school-to-work transitions of new engineers. In 2006 the Engineering Education Research Colloquies identified the need to study the transition from college to professional engineering work based on the importance of this transition period for showing engineering educators what knowledge and skills young engineers need to succeed in the workplace. Indeed, understanding this transition has implications not only for the structure of undergraduate engineering programs and accreditation systems, but can also shed light on the state of engineering as a profession. The gold standard for examining this transition period is organizational ethnography—observing young engineers as they become integrated into their first work environment. In 2014 our research team won funding to study this transition period, but progress has been slower than anticipated due to extreme difficulty gaining access to engineering firms. An unexpected barrier to access has been convincing engineering firms that their proprietary information will not be at risk if they allow a researcher to observe their employees at work. This methods paper comments on the increasingly corporate orientation of engineering firms and presents best practices for gaining access to field sites, including identifying key gatekeepers, negotiating non-disclosure agreements, and developing relevant articulations of “value added.”

Stevens, R., & Vinson, A. (2016, June), Institutional Obstacles to Ethnographic Observation in Engineering Industry Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25742

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