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Learning to Anticipate the User in Professional Engineering Work

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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

Design and Making

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


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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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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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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Research in Science and Technology Studies attends to ways in which designers ‘configure’ the user by constraining the possible future actions of the user through the design of products and processes (Woolgar 1990). However, configuring the user implies knowledge of the user. In this paper we investigate how early career engineers learn about the users of their products. We draw on ethnographic observations of and interviews with 20 early career engineers across 10 companies as they participate in and reflect upon product design, process testing, data presentation, and workflow planning to show how engineers take their various audiences into account. We find that engineers configure the user through a range of activities: translating information for non-specialist audiences, highlighting salient information to direct users’ attention, implementing systems that control the work of others, and creating engineering drawings free of idiosyncrasies that can be interpreted by a range of users. Our study tracks these 20 early career engineers as they produce documents, drawings and presentations and highlights the role of more senior engineers who provide feedback and corrections to help the new engineers understand who the user of the product will be and what the user expects from the product. Our analysis pays particular attention to the importance of aesthetics in information presentation. We found that engineers were focused on aesthetic elements such as color, spacing, and orderliness of documents and products, and that the presentation of the product could take on a moral character that reflected on the engineer him/herself. Our findings contribute to an approach of seeing engineering as simultaneously a social and technical (or socio-technical) form of work (Stevens, Johri & O’Connor 2013).

Vinson, A., & Davis, P., & Stevens, R. (2017, June), Learning to Anticipate the User in Professional Engineering Work Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28616

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