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Professional Formation of Engineers’ Conceptions of “the Public”: Early-Concept Exploratory Research

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session I

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Yanna Lambrinidou Virginia Tech

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Yanna Lambrinidou is a medical ethnographer and adjunct assistant professor in the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program at Virginia Tech. For the past 8 years, she has conducted extensive research on the historic 2001-2004 Washington, DC lead-in-drinking-water contamination. This work exposed wrongdoing and unethical behavior on the part of engineers and scientists in local and federal government agencies. In 2010, Dr. Lambrinidou co-founded the graduate level engineering ethics course "Engineering Ethics and the Public," which she has been co-teaching to students in engineering and science.

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Nathan E Canney Seattle University

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Dr. Canney teaches civil engineering at Seattle University. His research focuses on engineering education, specifically the development of social responsibility in engineering students. Other areas of interest include ethics, service learning, and the role of the public in engineering decisions. Dr. Canney received bachelors degrees in Civil Engineering and Mathematics from Seattle University, a masters in Civil Engineering from Stanford University with an emphasis on structural engineering, and a PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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The relationship between engineers and their ultimate client, the often-invisible “public,” lies at the heart of the engineering profession’s identity and mission. Today, the over 2 million practicing engineers in the US routinely make complex and critical decisions with significant implications for the public’s health, safety, and welfare in a relational vacuum, where publics are imagined rather than engaged with. Postulating that different conceptions of “the public” reinforce different professional ideologies, identities, and forms of practice, this research is driven by the hypothesis that engineering education promotes conceptions that distance engineers from the publics they serve and compromise their ability to promote the social good in locally desirable and socially just ways.

This study, funded by a National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER), initiates an examination of engineers’ conceptions of “the public” – what these conceptions are, how they form, and how they are expressed in interactions with diverse publics. Employing a single case study methodology, the research design includes three data sources: 1) official engineering documents that frame the profession’s discourse around engineers’ relationship with society, 2) interviews with engineering students, faculty, and practicing professionals, and 3) interviews with members of publics who are “mobilized” around a specific cause and who have extensive experience – positive and/or negative – interacting with engineers. Content and thematic analysis will be used to identify prevalent engineering conceptions, and will culminate in data triangulation to determine points of convergence and divergence between how engineers view “the public” and how members of diverse publics view themselves.

This work aims to build a deeper understanding about engineers’ conceptions of the public. The goal is to set a foundation from which educational interventions that foster socially just and mutually edifying collaborations between engineers and society can be explored, developed, and implemented.

Lambrinidou, Y., & Canney, N. E. (2016, June), Professional Formation of Engineers’ Conceptions of “the Public”: Early-Concept Exploratory Research Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25970

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