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Making Sense of Design: A Thematic Analysis of Alumni Perspectives

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Preparing for Practice

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.883.1 - 23.883.16



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Paper Authors


James Huff Purdue University Orcid 16x16

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James L. Huff is a Ph.D. candidate in Engineering Education at Purdue University as well as the Assistant Education Administrator for EPICS. He earned his BS in Computer Engineering at Harding University and an MS in electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. He is currently on an academic leave from his role as an instructor of engineering at Harding University. His research interests include professional socialization of engineers, social cognition in engineering, community-driven design, and interpretive phenomenology.

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Carla B. Zoltowski Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Carla B. Zoltowski, Ph.D., is Education Administrator of the EPICS Program at Purdue University. She
received her B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering and Ph.D. in engineering education, all from Purdue
University. She has served as a lecturer in Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Dr. Zoltowski’s academic and research interests include human-centered design learning and assessment, service-learning, ethical reasoning assessment, leadership, and assistive technology.

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William C. Oakes Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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William (Bill) Oakes is the Director of the EPICS Program and one of the founding faculty members of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He has held courtesy appointments in Mechanical, Environmental and Ecological Engineering as well as Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education. He is a registered professional engineer and on the NSPE board for Professional Engineers in Higher Education. He has been active in ASEE serving in the FYP, CIP and ERM. He is the past chair of the IN/IL section. He is a fellow of the Teaching Academy and listed in the Book of Great Teachers at Purdue University./ He was the first engineering faculty member to receive the national Campus Compact Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service-Learning. He was a co-recipient of the National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education and the recipient of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Educational Excellence Award and the ASEE Chester Carlson Award. He is a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education and the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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Robin Adams Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Robin S. Adams is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her research is concentrated in three interconnecting areas: cross-disciplinary thinking, acting, and being; design cognition and learning; and theories of change in linking engineering education research and practice.

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Making Sense of Design: A Thematic Analysis of Alumni Experiences of Design in SLPXDesign is a topic of significant interest among engineering education researchers. In efforts toidentify how students learn design, several significant engineering education studies havediscussed how students enact design behavior, how they construe their understandings of design,and how they develop in their design ways of thinking and doing. While the motivations forthese studies are diverse, many address a large and common question confronting engineeringeducation – how do we prepare twenty-first century engineers to design effective solutions forcomplex problems?In practice, the response to this overarching question has taken many forms in engineeringeducation. Often, curricula constrain the time of the design experience to fit within the academiccalendar and the context to be simulated rather than authentic. In contrast, a multidisciplinary,service-learning program at University X (SLPX) engages students in design experiences withinan authentic context and extends over multiple semesters. Several in engineering education havechampioned SLPX and similar programs for providing such an authentic design experience, butno prior studies have investigated how such experiences shape the student’s design knowledge,ability, and identity after graduation. In other words, how do alumni of SLPX make sense oftheir experiences in the program in light of their design experiences in industry? How do theseearly-career engineers understand and enact design from their experiences in SLPX?This paper presents the findings of a thematic analysis related to how alumni connect theirdesign experiences in SLPX to their design experiences in industry. Further, this paper presentsfindings focused on the alumni’s design experience and is part of from a larger embedded,sequential mixed-methods study on the overall alumni experience and the impact of the SLPX. Adiverse range of alumni (n = 27) were purposively sampled from participants of a previoussurvey (n = 528). Our interview protocol was informed by both the survey responses of alumniand the objectives of this larger investigation. We approached the analysis phase of this studywith a rigorous thematic analysis that involved multiple angles and iterations of studying theparticipants’ interview transcripts. Through this analysis, we have seen the design theme to bequite pervasive throughout the participants’ accounts. The alumni communicate transference oftheir design experiences in SLPX to their current practice, albeit to varying degrees and innuanced ways.The objective of this paper, then, is to make visible how authentic design experiences, such asSLPX, affect alumni in their design ability and understanding in their careers. We discuss themultiple and also common ways that alumni understand and enact design because of theirexperiences in SLPX. We organize these findings and present them in detail, grounding them inliterature from design studies and engineering education and extending scholarship in theseareas. Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for engineering design educators.

Huff, J., & Zoltowski, C. B., & Oakes, W. C., & Adams, R. (2013, June), Making Sense of Design: A Thematic Analysis of Alumni Perspectives Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22268

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