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Use Of The Critical Incident Technique For Qualitative Research In Engineering Education: An Example From A Grounded Theory Study

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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

Educational Research & Methods Poster Session

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1310.1 - 15.1310.13



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Paper Authors


Denise Grant

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Denise Simmons Grant is a doctoral candidate in Civil Engineering at Clemson University. She is currently on leave from her position as assistant professor of Civil Engineering Technology at South Carolina State University. Ms. Grant, a registered professional engineer, is conducting her dissertation research on increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities in engineering careers under the direction of Dr. Julie Trenor in the Department of Engineering Science and Education.

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Julie Trenor

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Julie Martin Trenor. Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Engineering and Science Education at Clemson University. Dr. Trenor was recently awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER award for her research entitled, “CAREER: Influence of Social Capital on Under-Represented Students’ Academic and Career Decisions.” She is currently serving the second of a three year term as President-Elect, President, and Past President of Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN). Dr. Trenor holds a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Virginia Tech and a bachelor’s degree in the same field from North Carolina State University.

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Use of the Critical Incident Technique for Qualitative Research in Engineering Education: An Example from a Grounded Theory Study Abstract

The critical incident technique is a well-established qualitative research method that is useful in exploring significant experiences in order to better understand resulting behavior. The critical incident technique is emerging as a tool for research and for building theories in engineering education.1, 2 This paper describes the initial state of a grounded theory study. The purpose of the larger study is to develop a theory that relates how students perceive the role of their family in making engineering-related academic decisions. The population under study is first generation college students. Specifically, this paper describes the development of an interview protocol based on the critical incident technique and demonstrates its usage in drawing out thick, rich descriptions which help increase the trustworthiness of qualitative research.

Initial interview data are presented to highlight our usage of the critical incident technique to elicit specific information about how participants experienced various critical family interactions that influenced academic decisions about engineering. This paper contributes to the engineering education body of literature by illustrating the critical incident technique and discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the approach for other researchers who may seek to employ the critical incident technique for their own work.


The motivation for this work is two-fold. For the work presented in this paper, which is a part of a larger study, the aim is to illustrate the use of the critical incident technique. For the larger study, the research questions addressing students’ experiences with family influences are motivated by the dearth of empirical studies addressing such influences on the academic decision-making of first generation college students majoring in engineering. In today’s technological society, the need for engineers in the work force is at an all time high.3, 4, 5, 6 Both the number and ethnic diversity of the work force are of concern. Dr. William Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, stated that diversity in the engineering workforce is a necessity: “My argument is essentially that the quality of engineering is affected by diversity (or the lack of it). … Without diversity, the life experiences we bring to an engineering problem are limited. As a consequence, we may not find the best engineering solution. We may not find the elegant engineering solution. … To sum up, I believe that diversity is essential to good engineering!” 7

A number of researchers have reported that having a parent or family member who is an engineer is an influencing factor for students, particularly females, to choose engineering as a college major. 8, 9, 10, 11 Yet, the academic and career choices of students without an engineering or college-educated role model are not well understood.

It is also known from the higher education literature that certain family roles in academic decisions vary based on parental education level. In the field of engineering education, the

Grant, D., & Trenor, J. (2010, June), Use Of The Critical Incident Technique For Qualitative Research In Engineering Education: An Example From A Grounded Theory Study Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15712

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2010 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015