Asee peer logo

“Wearing that Hard Hat and Those Boots and Being There with all the Dust”: Students’ Conceptions of Becoming a Civil Engineer

Download Paper |


2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

FPD II: Increasing Engagement and Motivation of First-Year Students

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1724.1 - 22.1724.11



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Nicky Wolmarans University of Cape Town, Department of Civil Engineering and Centre for Research in Engineering Education (CREE)

visit author page

I am currently an "Academic Development Lecturer" in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Cape Town. As an ADL I am part of a programme in the Engineering and the Built Environment Faculty initiated to address issues of student experience and success.

visit author page


Corrinne Shaw University of Cape Town, Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Centre for Research in Engineering Education (CREE)

visit author page

After graduating from the University of Cape Town, I worked in both the public (as an educator) and private sectors before returning to postgraduate study and embarking on an academic career. As with many South Africans, growing up under Apartheid has had a profound impact on my worldview and life choices. This has included influencing the choice of a career in education, both as a practitioner and scholar.
I currently convene a postgraduate programme in Engineering Management and teach undergraduate courses in Engineering Management. I draw on multiple theoretical constructs for the design of learning contexts, including complexity and systems theory.
My research is primarily focussed on student experience of learning events and student learning more broadly both in formal settings and the workplace.

visit author page

Download Paper |


“Wearing that hard hat and those boots and being there with all the dust”: Students’ conceptions of becoming a Civil Engineer.It has become common practice in engineering programmes to include a professional orintroductory course in engineering at the first year level. These courses tend to focus onacademic and professional skills development, and/or the introduction to the engineeringdisciplines through project based learning. In our course in the civil engineering programmewe intend to introduce students to engineering through six projects from various civilengineering specialisations. The objective of the course is to make explicit what it means tothink like an engineer, and to recognise what it means to be an engineer. It can however beassumed that students experience the course in a multiplicity of ways, some more alignedwith the course intentions than others.In an effort to better understand how our students’ experience the course we interviewed arange of students who had completed the course in the previous year and conducted aphenomenographic analysis of these interviews. Phenomenography allows us to categorisethe qualitatively different ways of experiencing a shared phenomenon, in this case how thecourse frames a student’s conceptions of becoming an engineer.This paper reports our findings of four hierarchically related, qualitatively different categoriesdescribing how students conceive of civil engineering through their engagement with theprojects on the course. In the simplest category students don’t engage with becoming anengineer at all. They tend to see the course activities as prescribed by the lecturer, unrelatedto a more abstract understanding of identity formation. In the second category there is arelationship between activities and engineering practice, but it represents a literal translationinto engineering practice, as though they are doing exactly what engineers do. In the thirdcategory students begin to abstract the activities as representations of engineering practice,but what distinguishes this category from the most complex category is the notion thatscience is compromised by the multi-disciplinarily nature of engineering practice. In the mostcomplex category students extrapolate the activities as representations of aspects ofengineering practice; and they see conflicting requirements for problem solving as achallenging form of optimisation rather than merely compromise.These phenomenographic findings are supported by a qualitative analysis of the stories ofbecoming or not becoming an engineer which add an affective layer to thephenomenographic categories that emerged. These reveal that alienation from theprofessional identity does not necessarily preclude meaningful learning. In addition, successor affirmation in other subjects tends to reinforce students’ sense of access to the profession,even when they experience fairly unsophisticated conceptions of engineering.In combination, these findings challenged assumptions regarding the student experience ofthe course and provide a rich evaluative element of the course for the purpose of informingthe design and delivery thereof.

Wolmarans, N., & Shaw, C. (2011, June), “Wearing that Hard Hat and Those Boots and Being There with all the Dust”: Students’ Conceptions of Becoming a Civil Engineer Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17294

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: © 2011 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