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Personal Epistemology and Sophomore Civil Engineering Students

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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

Engineering Identity 2

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.963.1 - 23.963.11



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Paper Authors

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Nadia L. Frye Washington State University

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Devlin Montfort Washington State University


Shane A. Brown P.E. Washington State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Shane Brown conducts research on cognition and conceptual change in engineering. He received his bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees from Oregon State University, both in civil engineering. His Ph.D. degree includes a minor in science and mathematics education. His master’s degree is in environmental engineering from the University of California, Davis. Dr. Brown is a licensed professional civil engineer and has six years of experience designing water and wastewater treatment facilities in central California. He was the recipient of the NSF CAREER award in 2011. Dr. Brown’s research interests are in conceptual change, epistemology, and social or situated cognition. Specifically, his research focuses on theoretical approaches to understanding why some engineering concepts are harder to learn than others, including the role of language and context in the learning process.

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Personal Epistemology and Sophomore Civil Engineering Students Based on research completed by scholars since the 1960’s it is likely that students’ beliefsabout knowledge will change over the course of their education. These beliefs are referred to aspersonal epistemology (PE), and most scholars in the field believe that they can be examined interms of different subcategories, or dimensions. These dimensions often include how certain wecan be about knowledge, where knowledge comes from, how we organize knowledge and howwe justify what we know. Though there have been many quantitative, survey-based studiesexamining university students’ general personal epistemologies, there have been relatively fewlongitudinal, qualitative studies exploring PE at the university level. This limits the depth ofinformation on students’ changing epistemologies, as well as issues of domain specificity inepistemology. The purpose of this study is to explore a group of sophomore level civil engineeringstudents’ personal epistemologies as part of a larger longitudinal, qualitative study. In this way,we can explicitly track changes in PE and identify at what stage in students’ academic careersthey take place. The data for this study were collected through in-depth, semi-structured interviews with10 sophomore level civil engineering students. The interviews were conducted twice during thesophomore year, once at the end of the fall semester and once at the end of the spring semester.Each set of PE questions was asked over approximately 30 minutes and required students tofocus on a knowledge domain within civil engineering. The data were analyzed through thematicanalysis. After an initial reading of the text, themes were identified in the data and developedinto overarching stances, which were then organized based on the theoretical framework of thestudy. PE changes can be identified in seven of the ten students interviewed during the ninemonths of the study. These changes can be identified in many of the dimensions of PE includinghow knowledge is structured in engineering, where engineering knowledge comes from and howengineering students justify the knowledge they use. The seven participants who did demonstratechanges in their personal epistemologies did so in different ways, at different times and todifferent degrees. These changes likely could not have been captured by a quantitative, survey-based instrument because of the variability of responses, and especially because there is nodomain-specific instrument for evaluating PE in civil engineering. Based on these findings, it appears that that engineering students’ personalepistemologies will continue to evolve in major ways throughout their pursuit of an engineeringdegree. These results show a significant shift in student thought, but this shift may not fit withepistemological development as predicted by pre-established development theories of knowledgeand knowing. This paper is the first based on results of a longitudinal study that will allow us totrack the development of civil engineering students’ personal epistemologies. The qualitative andlongitudinal nature of the study will allow us to determine what these apparent epistemologicalchanges represent: either random fluctuations or a discernable shift in the way the participantsapproach knowledge.

Frye, N. L., & Montfort, D., & Brown, S. A. (2013, June), Personal Epistemology and Sophomore Civil Engineering Students Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22348

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