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Using a Community of Practice to Diffuse Instructional Improvements into the Classroom

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Continuing Professional Development Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Continuing Professional Development

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1316.1 - 24.1316.14



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Paper Authors


Diane L. Zemke Independent Researcher

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Diane Zemke is an independent researcher and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in leadership studies from Gonzaga University. Her research interests include teamwork, small group dynamics, dissent, organizational change, and reflective practice. Dr. Zemke has published in the International Journal of Engineering Education, the Journal of Religious Leadership, and various ASEE conference proceedings. She is the author of "Being Smart about Congregational Change."

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Steven C. Zemke Gonzaga University

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Steven Zemke, Ph.D., has been involved in engineering design and teamwork for over 30 years as a professional engineer, university professor, and researcher. He is the current chair of the mechanical engineering department at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and teaches engineering design and teamwork courses. His two research foci are how students learn design and teamwork and how understanding of learning can be used to create more effective pedagogy. Prior to teaching, Dr. Zemke was a professional product designer for over 20 years with an emphasis on mechanical packaging of microwave circuitry.

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Using a Community of Practice to Diffuse Instructional Improvements into the ClassroomThere is significant research on improving engineering pedagogy, but it has proven difficult todiffuse this research into practice. For engineering education to move forward, currentlyavailable pedagogies need easy and effective paths into engineering schools and individualclassrooms.This qualitative study explored using a community of practice to help faculty implementeffective pedagogies in their classrooms. The study occurred at a small, liberal arts institutionwith an engineering school over the course of an academic year. The engineering school servedapproximately 700 students, with programs in mechanical, electrical, civil, and computerengineering, as well as in engineering management and computer science. It had no graduateprograms in engineering. High teaching loads, distracting school conflicts, and ambivalencetoward learning new pedagogies by many faculty all provided realistic, but challengingconditions.Our starting premise was that providing social support with the community and the combinedexperience of the community members could be sufficient to enable faculty to learn and adoptnew pedagogies while remaining in place. Our research intent was to observe what obstacles thecommunity encountered and what factors made it thrive. Our goals for the community of practicewere to: (a) create a sustainable level of effort in the community, (b) create a safe, supportive,and fun environment, (c) explore areas of teaching, learning, and instruction of interest to thegroup, and (d) employ a practical, rather than theoretical approach.To support these goals we recruited members who were willing to: a) preview an idea with theclub to improve it, b) try the idea out in class, and c) review what happened in class with club.The community consisted of members from civil engineering, math, and computer science. Itwas facilitated by one of the researchers, a mechanical engineering faculty. Another researcherobserved the community, tracking its interactions. These notes were coded for emerging themesto surface challenges and successes.The community met weekly over lunch. During the first semester the community primarilyengaged in conversation around instructional challenges within member’s classrooms, such asfacilitating group work and improving testing strategies. During the second semester the groupchose to discuss a practical text on improving instruction.We found that the group quickly became supportive of each other and transparent about thechallenges they faced. When faculty discussed challenges they were currently experiencing inthe classroom they were highly engaged. When we shifted to using a text on improvinginstruction faculty engagement decreased even though members found the content useful. Thecommunity was effective at supporting faculty as they tried new approaches or addressed issues,but this effectiveness was limited. We also found the interdisciplinarity of the group, which is acommon constraint in small engineering schools, to be challenging when addressing discipline-specific topics. However, for many more global issues it was not a hindrance. Finally, we foundhaving a skilled facilitator was vital.

Zemke, D. L., & Zemke, S. C. (2014, June), Using a Community of Practice to Diffuse Instructional Improvements into the Classroom Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23250

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