Asee peer logo

Work in progress: First-Year Students' Definitions of Engineering Practice

Download Paper |


2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Monday 5-Minute Work-in-Progress Postcard Session

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Teresa Lee Tinnell University of Louisville Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Terri Tinnell is a Curriculum and Instruction PhD student and Graduate Research Assistant for the Speed School of Engineering and College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville. She received a Bachelors in Mathematics and Physics and Masters in Teaching STEM education from the University of Louisville. She is a prior Project Lead the Way Master Teacher and Secondary Education Engineering Instructor, leading the creation of two engineering programs for two Kentucky school districts. Her research interests include engineering education, development of engineering identity and critical agency as well as retention of engineering students into career.

visit author page


Jaqi C. McNeil University of Louisville Orcid 16x16

visit author page

J.C. McNeil is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Engineering Fundamentals at University of Louisville. Contact email:

visit author page

Download Paper |


Background This work in progress paper will describe a process of analysis for first-year student definitions of the practice of engineering. Engineering has long carried a stigma as people that are good at math and science [1]. However, now it is recognized as a distinct and separate discipline with its own components of thinking and execution [2]. This research investigates what student’s definition of the practice of engineering is within their first year experience. We began this study using Figueiredo’s four dimensions of engineering knowledge [3]. The four dimensions were comprised of: social sciences (engineer as sociologist), basic sciences (engineer as scientist), design (engineer as designer) and practical realization (engineer as doer).

Purpose The study has been designed to examine how first year engineering students interpret the practice of engineering and how they view it in relation to either themselves, others, and the world. The research question that we address in this paper is: How do first year engineering students define the practice of engineering?

Design/Method At the end of the students’ freshman year, during their summer Engineering Mathematics courses, students were asked to describe the practice of engineering in an open-ended questionnaire. The directions read: In 150-200 words, describe what the practice of engineering means to you. We surveyed x students, and received 349 responses. These responses were coded using thematic analysis resulting in six themes. Because these responses were surprisingly rich, this question was analyzed using open and axial coding [4]. Considering the quality of the qualitative data [4-5], the theoretical validation of this data, while limited by including participants only from a medium, public, research institution, other modes of variation are present. Procedural validation will be established through the triangulation of qualitative and quantitative data.

Further, the constant comparative method was used to make sure that we were staying consistent with coding the definitions of the practice of engineering [5]. A limitation is that communicative validation was impossible in this study design, because this data was collected using an open-ended questionnaire, so there was only one-way communication. This approach had the benefit of enhancing process reliability through the use of a consistent survey message given to all the students [5].

Results Through the analysis, we found student understanding of engineering is conceptualized as pieces in an overarching process rather than Figueriedo’s four dimensions. All the themes we found in students’ responses were within the broad concept of the design/conceptualization process. We established six categories that encompass the expression of students’ responses. The six dimensions include: outward perspective (connecting to people and society), connecting to people (teamwork, collaborating), theoretical (science, math concepts), creativity (innovation, creating, inventing), planning (design, blueprints, efficiency) and actual (critical thinking, problem solving). Through investigating how engineering students compartmentalize their understanding of engineering, we hope to be able to generalize that information to better understanding first year engineering students’ comprehension of the practice of engineering.


[1] National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 14-01). [2] M. Lammi, K. Becker, Engineering design thinking, Journal of Technology Education, 2013. [3] A. Figueiredo, Toward an epistemology of engineering, The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2008. [4] J. W. Creswell, Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches, 3rd edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2013, pp. 76. [5] J. Walther, N. W. Sochacka, and N. N. Kellam, Quality in interpretive engineering education research: Reflections on an example study, Journal of Engineering Education, 102(4), 2013, pp. 626-659.

Tinnell, T. L., & McNeil, J. C. (2017, June), Work in progress: First-Year Students' Definitions of Engineering Practice Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29160

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: © 2017 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