Research on Engineering Practice – An International Symposium

I am seeking your interest to come to an international meeting on engineering practice research (or participate online).

I have invited all the people listed below. If you know of others who would be interested, please tell them about this and ask them to contact me.

Sally Male has volunteered to lead the planning for this event to be held in Melbourne in the next year or so.

Interest in research on engineering practices, studies of engineering work, has grown considerably over the last 20 years or so since Stephen Barley wrote about ‘What we know (and mostly don’t know) about technical work. However, engineering practice research remains a special interest topic among humanities scholars focusing on studies of science and technology, likewise within the engineering education community. Maintaining a credible academic profile requires our humanities scholars to address contemporary issues in their fields as well. Most engineering educators have to produce technical contributions in addition to taking an interest in education scholarship. Therefore, we tend to meet on the sidelines of other events and our papers are typically slotted into an ‘other odds and ends’ conference stream, or the ‘education’ stream of a technical conference. There are few opportunities for us all to get together to focus on engineering practice itself.

Bill Williams arranged a small meeting in Madrid in 2011 on the sidelines of the REES event in October that year resulting in his book Engineering Practice in a Global Context: Understanding the Technical and the Social. Brent Jesiek and others organized a workshop among the INES community in 2018.

However, I am not aware of any other similar meetings.  I think it might be time to arrange another meeting.

Russ Korte and I have been working on a paper since last year which was originally intended for the updated Handbook of Engineering Education Research

We identified some significant challenges that, we think, we need to address as a community of engineering practice scholars.  (The paper needs more work so it is not yet available for distribution.)

Education Objectives

The first challenge concerns education objectives that are used in the engineering education community. Since the late 1990s, education objectives have been framed in terms of student learning outcomes, often referred to as competencies. However, we uncovered significant evidence that made us question the logical foundations for this approach. In particular, learning outcomes and competencies require contextual knowledge of engineering practice to be interpreted appropriately. Witness the tendency to assess students’ communication skills on extended texts (e.g. reports), while de-emphasizing oral communication skills, particularly listening, that underpin workplace practices. This discussion leads to the simple, yet obvious question: “how can one possibly teach engineering effectively without knowing how novice engineers are expected to perform?”

Of course, the reason why this is such a serious issue is that there are now so few engineering faculty with recent experiences of relevant industry practice. Knowledge of how novice engineers are expected to perform is simply not present in engineering schools. It’s a world-wide issue.

Educating for Collaboration

A related challenge that I raised in 2019 is the extent to which individual grading or assessment practices reinforce the valuing of independent practice by students, at the same time devaluing their interest, motivation and capacity for interdependent practice that characterize most engineering workplaces. (I am indebted to Kacey Beddoes for suggesting that term.)  The notion of interdependent, collaborative work captures both the critical importance of communication skills and  the context in which they are needed… to enact collaborative performances. Unfortunately, communication skills are still widely described in terms of ‘transferring information’. In my view that is a deceptive and misleading interpretation.

Descriptions of Practice

Russ and I are also suggesting that a significant challenge for us, as a research community, is to provide educators with concise, accessible and easy-to read descriptions of engineering practice (and perhaps a language too). Yes, we have produced a respectable body of knowledge with a few hundred publications. Yet, how many engineering faculty have either the time or inclination to find even a few of them and read them?

What Factors Influence Practice?

A third issue that surfaced in our work was the need for us, as a community, to embrace ideas that have emerged from the practice research community. Like many, when I started researching engineering practice, there was such a yawning knowledge gap that it was sufficient merely to start cataloguing significant aspects of practice among engineers. However, it was not long before I ran into the question ‘Why do engineers do what they do?’ and ‘Why do engineers eschew certain activities or delegate them to juniors (perhaps unwisely)?’ My original motivation for studying engineers was to try and understand why engineering practice is so much more challenging and difficult in low-income societies like India and Pakistan, so the influence of host-society culture soon became a major issue. As Davide Nicolini (2013) remarked “[non]theoretical cataloguing of what practitioners do may be an exciting endeavour for academics who are unfamiliar with the specific occupation, but it sheds little light on the meaning of the work that goes into it, what makes it possible, why it is the way it is, and how it contributes to, or interferes with, the production of organizational life”. (Nicolini, D. (2013). Practice Theory, Work and Organization: An Introduction. Oxford University Press.)

In simple terms, the research question “What do engineers do?” needs “… and why?” added to it. The organisational context and its influences needs to be explored as much as the nature of practice. Or as Russ neatly put it, we need to study both ‘the work’ and ‘the worker’ to make intellectual progress.

Engineering Weaknesses

For several years, I have been aware of significant engineering practice weaknesses which can be linked with education and conceptual weaknesses. These weaknesses have very significant economic consequences. One is the appalling level of performances in major (and even minor) engineering projects. Another is the unsatisfactory employability of engineering graduates in countries like India, even China, significantly undermining economic and social development (Tilak, J. B. G., & Choudhury, P. K. (2021). Employment and Employability of Engineering Graduates in India. Journal of Contemporary Educational Research, 5(3), 14. While the quality of engineering colleges has been blamed for this weakness, I think it has much more to do with relying on a patently false assumption, that engineering practice is sufficiently similar everywhere that engineering education can be globally standardised.

Why is this important for us, as a community?  Funding. By helping policymakers appreciate the significance of engineering practice research in addressing these major economic weaknesses, we should be able to attract significant funding for our research.

In suggesting these challenges, I don’t in any way want to suggest that other topics of current interest such as diversity, equity and inclusion; ethics; and sustainability should not be included. And you may have equally significant issues to bring to the table as well.

One issue is timing for such a meeting.

It would be wonderful to persuade you all to come and enjoy Melbourne’s wonderful ambience and climate (though I have to say the Perth climate is better through winter and spring). December is an attractive time to be in Melbourne when summer’s fierce heat is still to arrive and the beaches are in prime condition and water temperatures inviting.

However, I know that for most of you, Melbourne seems (and actually is) an awfully long way from home, and most other places. Singapore and Indonesia, our nearest neighbours, are 7 – 8 hours away by plane.

[Photo: Research in Engineering Practice Symposium – Madrid 2011 – Featuring Dominique Vinck, Cynthia Atman, Etienne Wenger, José Fiegueiredo, Tiago Forin, Antonio Dias de Figueiredo, myself and others, organised by Bill WIlliams]

Invitation List March 2023

Fredrik Asplund

Cynthia Atman

Mark Avnet

Mehmet Ayar

Diane Bailey

Stephen Barley

John Barry

Kacey Beddoes

Sarah Bell

Bernard Blandin

Samantha Brunhaver

Anders Buch

Jeff Buckley

Nathan Canney

Jenni Case

Alan Cheville

Andrew Chilvers

Steen Hyldgaard Christensen

Karen Coelho

Cynthia Colmellere

Eddie Conlon

Connor McGookin

Susan Conrad

Enda Crossin

Gloria Dall’Alba

Christelle Didier

Christelle Didier

Neelke Doorn

Gary Downey

David Drew

Kristina Edström

Waguih ElMaraghy

Yrjö Engeström

Wendy Faulkner

Sharon Ferguson

Julie Gainsburg

Christopher Gewirtz

Eileen Goold

Bill Grimson

Xavier Guchet

David Guile

Paul Hager

Deneen Hatmaker

John Heywood

Tom Holmgaard Børsen

Susan Horning

James Huff

Brent Jesiek

Aditya Johri

Mike Klassen

Milo Koretsky

Russ Korte

Abisola  Kusimo

Vivian Lagesen

Alice Lam

Lisa Lattuca

Paul Leonardi

Juan Lucena

Ben Lutz

James Magarian

Sally Male

Diana Adela Martin

Esther Matemba

Andrea Mazzurco

Diane Michelfelder

Glen Miller

Carl  Mitcham

Chandra Mukerji

Mike Murphy

Swetha Nittala

Francis Norman

Claire O’Neill

Maria Paretti

Honor Passow

Alice Pawley

Adam Phillips

Madeleine Polmear

Alexandra Revez

Monique Ross

Cindy Rottman

Carlos Augusto Sanchez Gomez

Jorgen Sandberg

Annalisa Sannino

Warren Seering

Sheri Sheppard

Jessica Smith

Reed Stevens

Alexandra Strong

Lucy Suchman

Jandhyala Tilak

James Trevelyan

Prof Vermaas

Dominique Vinck

Rachel Wilde

Bill Williams

Rosalind Williams

Christine Winberg

Jiabin Zhu


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