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Secondary Students’ Conceptions Of Engineers And Engineering: A Case Study Approach

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Assessment of K-12 Engineering Programs & Issues

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1054.1 - 15.1054.13



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Paper Authors

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Devlin Montfort Washington State University

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Shane Brown Washington State University Orcid 16x16

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Secondary Students’ Conceptions of Engineers and Engineering: A Case Study Approach


Researchers have long been interested in how to recruit and retain more and more diverse students into engineering programs. One consistent challenge in this research is understanding the impacts of interventions from the point of view of the student. This study investigated how secondary students understand the concept of engineering, including what engineering is and what engineers do. The purpose of this work was to describe students’ conceptions of engineering, and to determine how those perceptions affected student interest in engineering careers. The investigation was founded on the theoretical framework of conceptual ecology. Students from one high school that are typically underrepresented demographically in engineering programs were surveyed and interviewed about their perspective on engineering. The survey results were used to group students and to help purposefully sample the most information-rich groups of students. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed using the constant comparative and thematic analysis methods. Students who were interested in pursuing an engineering career generally believed that it involved hands-on building or fixing of cars, bridges or airplanes. Students who were not interested in a career in engineering discussed a broader variety of types of engineering, and more often cited altruism and inherent interest as reasons that others would pursue such careers. Most students in this study did not express very complex or rich conceptions of engineers or engineering, but their conceptual ecologies suggest that they would be resistant to changing these conceptions. This suggests that recruitment and retention programs will need to directly address students’ existing conceptions of engineering.


Retention and recruitment of diverse and talented individuals into the engineering industry is a topic of long and increasing interest. Research investigating why students choose to discontinue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors has indicated that students’ perceptions of engineering as a career play a major role in persistence decisions1. Similarly, students’ definitions of what engineers do play an important role in persistence, particularly in students’ identification of themselves as engineers. These conceptions change over students’ college careers2, 3, but students of all ages and stages often have great difficulty communicating or defining what the discipline of engineering encompasses2.

In the rich body of literature exploring how individuals make career decisions knowledge of various disciplines is just one variable among many. Knowledge of the field may be treated as a binary variable (people are either knowledgeable or not) or as a more complex spectrum (people may be knowledgeable to different degrees), but in most studies it is treated as a characteristic or quantity that a participant may have. Most educators now agree that peoples’ previous knowledge and ways of thinking influence learning in any field4. This basic assumption of learning changes the concept of knowledge from a static quantity that may be possessed or transported to a dynamic process occurring within and among people. The work presented here represents a preliminary effort to incorporate this conception of knowledge into the investigation

Montfort, D., & Brown, S. (2010, June), Secondary Students’ Conceptions Of Engineers And Engineering: A Case Study Approach Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15864

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