Dr Stuart Grey

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Thoughts on Engineering Education Research (EER)

Dec 15, 2021

The following is based on my reading of the following paper, all errors are my own.

Sarah Dart, Sloan Trad & Kim Blackmore (2021): Navigating the path from technical engineering to engineering education research: a conceptual model of the transition process, European Journal of Engineering Education, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2021.1992609

The barriers to the transition process for engineering educators into engineering education research are significant and multifaceted. These include: competing demands, lack of training and networks, perceptions of lack of academic credibility and support by peers and institutions, and limited impact on students. To enable EERs to transition into the profession more easily, attention must be paid to these issues in order to encourage a culture change.

International research in the field of engineering education is relatively new, with relatively few doctoral programs and much debate over the role that engineering education research should play in improving our understanding of engineering education. One issue with this is that many researchers in the field come from technical engineering backgrounds, which creates challenges for them to reconcile their education research training with the expectations of the field. This often leads to them being seen as a "soft" discipline that lags behind established "hard" disciplines.

Broadly, research conducted in engineering is primarily conducted through quantitative research methods, whereas research conducted in education is primarily qualitative. The needs of the two fields are vastly different which suggests that the two fields require different approaches to research.

The paper investigates the identity of Engineering Education Researchers, in order to better understand how these practitioners represent themselves in the research process. Practitioners have a stake in being seen as engineers and not just education researchers. In addition to asking why researchers make this transition, we are also interested to know how researchers make the transition.

This study explores the experiences of emergent engineering education researchers to isolate factors influencing the transition to EER. The study is framed through Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice. Bourdieu’s theory provides an excellent framework for understanding this transition process because it incorporates both individual-based and structural perspectives.

This study was a qualitative analysis of interviews with 12 engineering education researchers. The findings reveal a number of factors which influence the transition from established researcher to emerging engineering education researcher. The finding also demonstrate that the transition appears to be influenced by factors such as personal interest and the funding environment. Semi-structured interviews were used to explore participants’ experiences and perceptions of engaging in EER.

This study explored motivations for engaging in EER and the extent to which intrinsic and extrinsic motivations influenced participation in EER networks in order to characterise different types of motivation for engaging in EER and discuss the implications of engagement.

Although institutional support for EER research can be limited, participants noted that universities are making strides to improve research capacity.

Most participants described the challenges in securing funding for their research. This included securing enough for equipment, travel, or conference costs. Funding was described as being difficult to find at the university level, because even when available, it was not ‘big money’. One participant noted that EER projects are increasingly being masked as teaching improvement projects to be eligible for funding.

There are a number of factors that contributed to a sense of ‘transition shock’ among a cohort of engineers transitioning to education. The findings revealed a set of interconnected themes, including changes in research focus from engineering projects with clearly defined goals and methods for success, to non-experimental research projects with open-ended questions.

What I found interesting about this paper is that it theorises that education transitions are possible through negotiation between different socio-economic fields, lifestyles, career trajectories and career capitals.

Much of the literature on engineering education research focuses on its benefits for students. However, there are many scholars who question what constitutes an ‘educational expert’ which sometimes leaves the contributions of engineers in engineering education research unnoticed.

The authors conclude that the evidence points to the need for faculty in transition to EER to be supported by institutional leaders. An engineer's habitus shapes their social identity. Achieving a successful transition to EER requires both commitment and network building.

Engineering education research has been a fast-growing field over the last decade. Research shows that if individuals focus on enablers rather than inhibitors, there is evidence their strategic actions can forge a path.

As with any qualitative study, the analysis is limited in the questions it can address. Future research should explore whether women are more prone to transition in or out of EER than men, and what career stages are most likely to initiate the transition process. It would also be worthwhile to investigate the relationship between precarity and transitioning in or out of EER.