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Where does the Personal Fit within Engineering Education? An Autoethnography of one Student's Exploration of Personal-Professional Identity Alignment

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Professional Development and Lifelong Learning

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Nicholas Robert Welling Seattle University Orcid 16x16

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I am a senior at Seattle University pursuing a major in civil engineering. I am deeply interested in structural engineering, and I aspire to use my technical skills gained through education to serve and improve society. As my education progresses, so does my desire to learn, both on a technical level and on a social level. Understanding how engineering relates to society has been fundamental to my undergraduate experience. I plan to continue on a path of lifelong learning as I hope to obtain a graduate-level education in the future. My engineering identity and career are underpinned by a hunger for knowledge and a desire to serve.

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Nathan E. Canney Seattle University

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Dr. Canney teaches civil engineering at Seattle University. His research focuses on engineering education, specifically the development of social responsibility in engineering students. Other areas of interest include ethics, service learning, and sustainability education. Dr. Canney received bachelors degrees in Civil Engineering and Mathematics from Seattle University, a masters in Civil Engineering from Stanford University with an emphasis on structural engineering, and a PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Yanna Lambrinidou Virginia Tech

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Yanna Lambrinidou is a medical ethnographer and adjunct assistant professor in the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program at Virginia Tech. For the past 8 years, she has conducted extensive research on the historic 2001-2004 Washington, DC lead-in-drinking-water contamination. This work exposed wrongdoing and unethical behavior on the part of engineers and scientists in local and federal government agencies. In 2010, Dr. Lambrinidou co-conceived the graduate level engineering ethics course "Engineering Ethics and the Public," which she has been co-teaching to students in engineering and science. She is co-Principal Investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) research and education project developing an ethnographic approach to engineering ethics education.

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One way to look at many of the challenges facing the engineering community is to focus on the ways in which engineering systems (educational or professional) relate to the individual. From K-12 outreach for encouraging interest in engineering, to first-year programs for keeping incoming students interested and invested through graduation, to transition work looking at why some graduates pursue engineering careers and others do not – these efforts all involve discussions about how the individual fits or does not fit within the system and what the individual can do to help develop a better fit. There exists, however, immense rigidity in educational systems that try, generally, to employ one-size-fits-all approaches to education, largely ignoring (or even never asking) how the system fits or does not fit within the individual and what the system can do to help develop a better fit.

This study explores the issue of personal-professional identity alignment through an autoethnography about myself. I am a senior undergraduate civil engineering student, examining my developing professional identity in relation to my personal identity – specifically, my strong desire to help others and improve society. My work focuses on formative experiences spurred by my involvement in a research project about engineers’ imaginaries of “the public.” My involvement – specifically content analysis of engineering documents and transcription of interviews with engineering students and faculty – exposed me to ideas that have both challenged and supported my sense of engineering identity. I used short journal entries to reflect on quotes from documents or from interviewees that captured my attention, oftentimes spurring new thoughts about who I am or want to be, personally or professionally. Three of these journal entries were further developed into narratives to showcase moments that helped to solidify my understanding of my motivations to become an engineer, my preparation in school, and prospects of merging my personal identity with my future engineering career.

Autoethnography is a methodology whereby the researcher uses his/her own experience to explore social/cultural issues. It comes out of recognition that the researcher is not a value-free observer, but influences and is influenced by the very subject they are studying. Autoethnographies focus on moments of change for the researcher that are then used to highlight larger cultural contexts. In this work, I use autoethnography to explore the evolving development of my personal and professional identities in the context of a specific engineering education system, and to identify nodes of alignment and misalignment between those identities.

Looking at my experiences through an identity-alignment lens, I see evidence of misalignment between who I am and want to be, and who I need to be to succeed as an engineering undergraduate student. This misalignment brings into question my fit within the system – the way I was trained, what I was trained for, and the larger views of the engineering profession with respect to how engineers should contribute to society. If engineering is intended to be a profession that helps others, why then do I feel unique in this personal desire to address social needs and also significantly unprepared, as I near graduation, to enact my vision?

Welling, N. R., & Canney, N. E., & Lambrinidou, Y. (2017, June), Where does the Personal Fit within Engineering Education? An Autoethnography of one Student's Exploration of Personal-Professional Identity Alignment Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29121

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