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Introducing Actor–Network Theory via the Engineering Sophomore Year

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Examining Social Ties and Networks

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1021.1 - 26.1021.18



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Paper Authors


Janet Y Tsai University of Colorado Boulder

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Janet Y. Tsai is a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at CU Boulder. Her research investigates sociocultural environments of engineering undergraduate, particularly within the environments of impactful required mathematics courses. Adapting concepts from the Learning Sciences, Janet hopes to bring new ideas to engineering education that will illuminate previously overlooked social phenomena and improve the engineering experience for all students.

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Daria A Kotys-Schwartz University of Colorado Boulder

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Dr. Daria Kotys-Schwartz is the Director of the Idea Forge—a flexible, cross-disciplinary design space at University of Colorado Boulder. She is also the Design Center Colorado Director of Undergraduate Programs and an Instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. She received B.S. and M.S degrees in mechanical engineering 
from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder. Dr. Kotys-Schwartz has focused her research in engineering student learning, retention, and student identity development within the context of engineering design. She is currently investigating the impact of cultural norms in an engineering classroom context, performing comparative studies between engineering education and professional design practices, examining holistic approaches to student retention, and exploring informal learning in engineering education.

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Daniel Knight University of Colorado, Boulder

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Daniel W. Knight is the Program Assessment and Research Associate at Design Center (DC) Colorado in CU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering at the College of Engineering and Applied Science. He holds a B.A. in psychology from the Louisiana State University, and an M.S. degree in industrial/organizational psychology and a Ph.D. degree in education, both from the University of Tennessee. Dr. Knight’s research interests are in the areas of retention, program evaluation and teamwork practices in engineering education. His current duties include assessment, team development and education research for DC Colorado's hands-on initiatives.

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Introducing Actor-Network Theory Via the Engineering Sophomore YearMotivation & Background:Research in engineering education typically requires identifying a unit of analysis, drawing aboundary to define and separate a system under study from other systems of lesser interest. Forexample, assessments of course interventions or extracurricular programs are inherentlybounded, as analyses necessarily focus on the efficacy of the specific approach beingimplemented. Similarly, studies have isolated individual cognitive factors like engagement,confidence, and belonging to facilitate the measurement and reporting of results as well asnarrow the scope for targeted interventions.In contrast, consider what happens if no system boundary is drawn, if no unit of analysis isidentified at the outset of an educational study. Instead of purposely isolating a set of factors oran individual course, what if these items are analyzed in terms of how they connect to others, tounderstand patterns of linkages and the resulting networks? Moving from isolation to connectionin educational research is one means of examining the social complexity of our everyday lives, tounearth the elements that are not accounted for when looking at the impact of a singleintervention on a designated class or program. This provides for a nuanced, exploratory study ofthe individually, socially, and culturally complex intersecting phenomena which constituteengineering education and its adherents. We initiate a new paradigm in engineering education,departing from the intervention-assessment model to conduct innovative research investigatingsociocultural relationships across environments, events, and effects on students.Actor-Network Theory, a novel social theory originating from the field of Science andTechnology Studies, advocates precisely this connected view of sociocultural phenomena, andthis approach of tracing out connections made between different types of elements: people,things, courses, cognitive constructs, and more. We adopt this conceptual framework toinvestigate the core engineering sophomore year – not in isolation, but in connection with theelements that flow in, out, and around this transitional time in engineering education. While theheavily-studied first or freshman year is characterized by the transition from high school tocollege environments, the understudied second year remains a pivotal time as passing or failinggrades determine which disciplinary networks, or majors, students come to call their own.   Thesecond year features gateway courses that eventually lead to the practice of engineering, coursesthat initiate students into greater levels of abstraction and analytical engineering problem solvinglike Calculus 3 and Differential Equations. These two courses, chosen as initial sites for ournetwork study, also serve as prerequisite requirements for subsequent technical courses inengineering degree programs. In the language of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), we wish to askhow students become enrolled in the actor-networks of engineering sophomore year and to whatconsequence.Methodology (including Assessment Methods)We utilize an ethnographic method of qualitative data collection. A slogan of ANT is to “followthe actors themselves” as they establish varied and dynamic connections in the social terrainbeing investigated. An actor can be human or non-human, as objects like curricula and textbookscan be connected as meaningfully to other elements in a network as a student to an instructor.Following the heterogeneous actors in this sense means tracing the associations made betweenall actors and artifacts in a given system, adding new elements as new connections are made andletting go of elements whose connections fade. By starting with the students, teachers, andartifacts involved in sophomore-level required mathematics courses, we have a foundational setof elements from which to expand the network and analyze which conditions are conducive tonetwork formation vs. dissolution. We record observations of course events both official andinformal; conduct semi-structured interviews with human actors that can speak for themselves;and gather artifacts and documentation that assist in tracing the connections made by non-humanobjects. This method is intended to trace out connections and map student actor-networks in theuniversity setting.Research/Assessment ResultsIn addition to introducing Actor-Network Theory and its applications to engineering education,this paper will present sample data from our study – a glimpse of salient actor-networks insophomore engineering. As an example: consider the actor-network of a mathematics lecture,including the students present on a given day, the content being presented, the instructor doingthe presenting, the notebooks students take notes in (or not), and the devices students use duringa lecture period to keep themselves entertained: pencils, crossword puzzles, and the new, moderndistraction of Internet-enabled Smartphones. Tracing out these activities during a contemporarymath lecture includes not just the public questions and answers voiced by students and teachers,but also the quieter online actions of students on their phones. As students text their friends orutilize social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, they are accessing alternateactor-networks as resources. We further analyze the consequences of accessing these onlineactor-networks in comparison to participating with the institutionally sanctioned actor-networkenacted by the lecturer at the chalkboard. Listening to students explain why they prefer to readtheir phones and text friends instead of paying attention and asking questions in lecture is aprocess of following the actors and realizing which actor-networks students utilize moreprominently than others. By pursuing student words and explanations to trace connections toadditional actors in the network, we begin to see how these dynamic actor-networks flowthrough the space and time of engineering sophomore year, ultimately rendering acomprehensive description of these lesser known happenings in engineering education.Conclusions & SignificanceActor-Network Theory offers a unique way of conceptualizing the social environment duringcritical phases of undergraduate engineering. Looking at sophomore engineering from an actor-network perspective illuminates connections between objects/constructs and people that may beintentional or unintentional, chained to consequences like retention in engineering or thedevelopment of some skills at the expense of others. We utilize the ANT approach to look atsocial interactions and complexity that cannot be accounted for with an analysis of isolatedfactors. Moving from studying isolated interventions to heterogeneous connections in sophomoreengineering gives us a lens through which we can investigate how new technologies (includingnonstop online connectivity) are changing the organization of space and time for our studentsand their networks. Simultaneously, we search for cracks in ossified educational practices thathave endured unexamined for “years and years.” Taken as a whole, we seek to uncover theconsequences of different actor-network formation and dissolution on the trajectories ofsophomore engineers and provide informed recommendations for educating engineers.  

Tsai, J. Y., & Kotys-Schwartz, D. A., & Knight, D. (2015, June), Introducing Actor–Network Theory via the Engineering Sophomore Year Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24358

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