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Measuring Engineering Students’ Contextual Competence

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Contextual Competencies

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.920.1 - 25.920.19



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Paper Authors


Hyun Kyoung Ro Carnegie Mellon University

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Hyun Kyoung Ro is a Research Designer and Analyst in the Institutional Research and Analysis at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Lisa R. Lattuca University of Michigan


Dan Merson Pennsylvania State University

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Dan Merson is a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Center for the Study of Higher Education and the College Student Affairs program at Penn State. He received his Ph.D. in higher education from Penn State in the summer of 2011. While at Penn State, he primarily worked on the NCAA-funded Student-Athlete Climate Study (SACS), a nation-wide project to assess student-athlete's perceptions and experiences regarding campus climate. He also worked with Drs. Lisa Lattuca and Patrick Terenzini on two NSF-funded projects that explore the current state of engineering education. Before beginning his doctoral program, he worked for Residence Life, the Dean of Students, and the College of Engineering at Penn State and for the Office of Admissions and the Baskin School of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His research interests include student learning and development, campus climate, technology in higher education, and engineering education.

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Patrick T. Terenzini Pennsylvania State University

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Patrick Terenzini is Distinguished Professor of higher education and Senior Scientist Emeritus in Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education.

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The Development of a Scale that Measures Engineering Students’ Contextual CompetenceThe belief that engineers cannot solve any problem without understanding its relevant contextshas been widely emphasized by both engineering academia and professions. The NationalAcademy of Engineering [1, 2] states that the “Engineer of 2020” must not only be technicallycapable, but also be able to understand the contextual constraints and consequences of theirwork. Several ABET program accreditation criteria [3] also promote contextual engineeringpractice. A growing body of research literature explores students’ contextual competence andways of incorporating contextual understanding into the engineering curriculum [4]. The purposeof this paper is to present a psychometrically developed scale that researchers and educators canuse to measure engineering students’ contextual competence.We began development of our measure with a definition developed in conjunction with facultyfrom a variety of professional and liberal arts fields, which defined contextual competence as“The capability to adopt multiple perspectives allows the graduate to comprehend the complexinterdependence between the profession and society. An enlarged understanding of the world andthe ability to make judgments in light of historical, social, economic scientific, and politicalrealities is demanded of the professional as well as the citizen” [5] (p. 23). Engineering educatorsand practitioners have increasingly come to embrace the importance of integrating liberal andprofessional studies. Our framework for conceptualizing contextual competence for engineeringstudents rests on the proposition that solutions to engineering problems must primarily betechnically sound (e.g., the dam cannot fail) while also being practically feasible and desirable interms of the problem’s contextual constraints. When considering which potential constraints toaddress, engineers need to also determine the geographic scope of the potential impacts of theirsolution. Some constraints may overlap, while others may conflict (e.g., the economic needs ofthe nation may have to be reconciled with the solution’s effect on the local community). Thus, inthis research, we defined contextual competence as an engineer's ability to anticipate andunderstand the constraints and impacts of social, cultural, environmental, political, and othercontexts on engineering solutions.Data for this study come from Prototype to Production (P2P), an NSF-funded, nationallyrepresentative, multi-institution, cross-sectional study of engineering education in the U.S.Using responses from 5,249 engineering students in 31 four-year institutions during the 2009spring and summer terms, we followed a standard psychometric scale development process [6] toconstruct a measure of contextual competence. We wrote items intended to represent thedefinition the research group developed based on our review of the literature. We revised theitems based on discussions with focus groups of engineering faculty members, consideration ofthe operationalization of the items as a set of survey questions, and results of the analysis of apilot test of more than 375 undergraduate engineering students. In this paper we describe thedevelopment of the final scale and present its psychometric properties based on the nationallyrepresentative sample of 5,249 students, including the results of the factor analysis, measures ofscale score reliability, and evidence supporting the validity of the scale.[1] National Academy of Engineering (2004). The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.[2] National Academy of Engineering (2006). Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.[3] ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission (2008, November 1). Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs: Effective for Evaluations during the 2009-2010 Accreditation Cycle. Baltimore, MD: ABET, Inc. Retrieved December 21 2010, from UPDATE/Criteria%20and%20PP/E001%2009-10%20EAC%20Criteria%2012-01-08.pdf[4] Bordogna, J., Fromm, E., & Ernst, E. W. (1993). “Engineering education: Innovation through integration,” Journal of Engineering Education, 82, 1, pp. 3-8.[5] Stark J. S. & Lowther M. A. (1988). Strengthening the Ties that Bind: Integrating Undergraduate Liberal and Professional Studies. Report of the Professional Preparation Network, Report # ED 304 951. Retrieved January 4, 2011 from[6] DeVellis, R. F. (2003). Scale Development: Theory and Applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Ro, H. K., & Lattuca, L. R., & Merson, D., & Terenzini, P. T. (2012, June), Measuring Engineering Students’ Contextual Competence Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21677

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