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Problem Solving in Engineering Education and 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

Professional Development and Lifelong Learning

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 and enculturation 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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Engineering educators have become increasingly attentive to the role of engineering education in meeting the ostensible ‘needs’ of the professional engineering workforce. In order to prepare students for professional engineering work, colleges of engineering have incorporated various courses into the undergraduate engineering curriculum, including capstone courses, project courses, and problem based learning. However, much of the typical engineering curriculum remains spent in disciplinary courses that emphasize textbook problem solving, despite the fact that ‘technical’ engineering problems are only one of several types of problem that engineers encounter in professional work settings.

While research on the school-to-work transition of early career engineers frequently focuses on the changes in identity that accompany this transition (e.g. Korte & Lin 2013), less attention has been paid to what new engineers do at work and how they learn to do it (Trevelyan & Till 2007; Stevens, Johri & O’Connor 2013). Using problem solving as a focal phenomenon, in this paper we demonstrate the range of problems that 20 early career engineers describe encountering or were observed to encounter. These engineers were educated at a variety of institutions, come from various disciplinary backgrounds in engineering, and work in a range of industries and work settings. We draw on ethnographic observations, field interviews and background interviews to show the types of problems early career engineers encounter, their roles in solving those problems, and the resources they draw on to solve these problems. Our analysis strengthens an empirical understanding of the types of problem solving early career engineers are likely to do. Our findings can therefore be used to inform the development of problem based learning and project/capstone courses in undergraduate engineering programs.

Vinson, A., & Davis, P., & Stevens, R. (2017, June), Problem Solving in Engineering Education and Professional Engineering Work Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28756

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