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Social Science Research In Engineering Education: Lessons Learned

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Emerging Issues in Engineering Education Research and Pedagogy

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1089.1 - 13.1089.12



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Paper Authors

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Susan Walden University of Oklahoma Orcid 16x16

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Cindy Foor University of Oklahoma

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Deborah Trytten University of Oklahoma

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

Social Science Research in Engineering Education: Lessons Learned Deborah A. Trytten1,2, Cindy E. Foor2, and Susan E. Walden2 1 School of Computer Science and 2Research Institute for STEM Education University of Oklahoma


The Journal of Engineering Education recently published an article about difficulties experienced by trained engineers embarking on educational research [1]. The last hurdle in Borrego’s assessment (a very engineer-like construct) was to integrate social scientists into engineering education research teams. Essentially, her description of this process implies that the social scientists will be consultants supporting the efforts of the engineering educators. However, what we found was that our scholarship was improved and our experience more satisfying when we moved beyond an engineer-consultant relationship to an integrated partnership. Our research process is similar to those strategies espoused in recent forums and reports on qualitative research in engineering education and the work of social scientists studying engineering education. (Ref. such as [2-21]) We will share the challenges and lessons we, the STEM professionals on the team, learned in our struggle to build a mutually respectful, trust- based, and symbiotic relationship with our social science partners. In the spirit of an authentic partnership, our anthropology colleague also faced challenges and grew intellectually through the experiences of this collaboration, but that story is for a different audience. Hopefully our story will inspire other engineering education researchers to not just use social science techniques and theories when expedient to do so, but to open their minds to new ways of thinking, investigating, and reporting.

The Research Institute for STEM Education (RISE) [22] grew from conversations in fall 2001 around ideas for a proposal to submit to the NSF Program in Gender Equity (now Research on Gender in Science and Engineering, Grant No. 0225228). The original group built a multi- disciplinary team with faculty from education, engineering, mathematics, women’s studies, and chemistry. The team decided to go beyond quantifying enrollments, graduation rates, etc. to developing a broad and deep understanding of the diverse range of factors and of the complex interrelationships between factors which were contributing to successful students and engineering programs. To accomplish our goals of identifying these factors and their interplay in the lives of students, we decided against administering a survey comprised of our preconceptions of what the factors would be, but instead chose to use an open-ended interview protocol to allow students to tell us their stories in their own words. An optimal team for accomplishing this research would need to include a cultural anthropologist who would be familiar with ethnographic interview-based research and socio-cultural theoretical frameworks. We expect that other kinds of social scientists would provide similar benefits to research projects with other goals, as has been suggested by others [1, 20].

When the STEM practitioners that dominated the initial group integrated social scientists into RISE, we blithely assumed that the social scientists would be assimilated into the existing STEM research culture. We’d all share calendars using Outlook, track changes in Word documents, and use email for our primary mode of communication. We’d collect data, count the number of students whose comments fell into well-defined categories, draw the one and only correct

Walden, S., & Foor, C., & Trytten, D. (2008, June), Social Science Research In Engineering Education: Lessons Learned Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3391

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