Engineering Identity

September 12, 2008

By Rover, Diane T

Engineering Identity Engineeringfora Changing World: A Roadmap to the Future of Engineering Practice, Research, and Education By James J. Duderstadt The Millennium Project, The University of Michigan, 2008, 131 pages, http://milproj.dc.umich.edu/publications/ EngFlex_report/

On the Outskirts of Engineering: Learning Identity, Gender, and Power via Engineering Practice By Karen L. Tonso New Directions in Science and Mathematics Education, Volume 6, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2007, 298 pages, ISBN 978-9077874943

Is engineering in the midst of an identity crisis? To view the recently published Grand Challenges for Engineering identified by the National Academy of Engineering (2008), it would appear that the role of engineering in society is clearly and boldly articulated. Fourteen challenge areas are presented, encompassing energy, water, infrastructure, healthcare, security, learning, and discovery. The introduction on the Web site concludes, “Today, we begin engineering a path to the future.” To observe and listen to engineering students gathered for annual recognition ceremonies on campus, it would appear that students are preparing roles for themselves on this path through their academic experiences and accomplishments.

Consider an excerpt from a Robert Louis Stevenson quote: “… be what we are, … become what we are capable of becoming.” The identity of what engineering is and what it is capable of becoming has been examined through numerous studies on change and reform in engineering practice, research, and education. The key to change is first understanding “what we are,” and then taking steps toward “what we are capable of becoming.” This perspective, albeit in different terms, was put forth in a plenary talk on “Transforming Institutional Culture” by Karan Watson (Texas AOcM University) at the National Science Foundation Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) Grantees Meeting in March, 2008. The theme of the meeting was building community. Watson stated that to be an agent for change, one needs to understand the paradigms of your own culture or environment. She added that it is difficult to identify paradigms from within. Paraphrasing her call to action, the culture is defined and supported by the “daily conversation” of the institution, and one must change the daily conversation.

The importance of institution-specific cultures is recognized in higher education in the realm of student learning. Although not the subject of this article, the book Inside the Undergraduate Experience: The University of Washington s Study of Undergraduate Learning (Beyer et al., 2007) is one of the latest examples of this. Based on a longitudinal study of freshmen and transfer students, it characterizes the undergraduate experience through case studies using multiple assessment methods. The “daily conversation” of the undergraduate experience is central to this study. As a first step to improving teaching and learning, it represents a snapshot of the undergraduate culture as a means to understand “what we are.”

Thus, what is the daily conversation that defines the culture engineering practice, research, and education? How does that conversation create an identity, and how does that conversation need to change? The identity of engineering – what we are and what we want to become – is a common thread between the two books selected for this special issue: Engineering for a Changing World: A Roadmap to the Future of Engineering Practice, Research, and Education, by James J. Duderstadt, and On the Outskirts Engineering: Learning Identity, Gender, and Power via Engineering Practice, by Karen L. Tonso. Both of these books are rich in content and perhaps equally rich in controversy. Engineering practitioners, researchers, and educators have widely varying perspectives and experiences, and these books draw conclusions and present situations that are not uniformly perceived across the engineering community. Engineering for a Changing World is a synthesis of recent national reports combined with an analysis that leads to sets of conclusions, goals, and proposed actions. On the Outskirts of Engineering is a study of student engineers, specifically student design teams, resulting in conclusions about campus culture and engineering identities. One takes a global perspective, the other, a more local one, and yet each presents a vision for change in a broader context that is faced with challenges, opportunities, and resistance.

In the Preface of Engineering for a Changing World, Duderstadt writes:

The purpose of this study is to pull together the principal findings and recommendations of the various reports concerning the profession of engineering, the technology and innovation needs of the nation, and the role played by human and intellectual capital, into an analysis of the changing nature of engineering practice, research, and education. More specifically, it considers the implications for engineering from several perspectives: i) as a discipline (similar to physics or mathematics), possibly taking its place among the “liberal arts” characterizing a 21st-century technology-driven society, ii) as a profession, addressing both the urgent needs and grand challenges facing our society, iii) as a knowledge base supporting innovation, entrepreneurship, and value creation in a knowledge economy, and iv) as a diverse educational system characterized by the quality, rigor, and diversity necessary to produce the engineers and engineering research critical to prosperity, security, and social well being (pp. iii-iv).

The question of identity is posed in the first chapter, as: “What is engineering-a discipline, an occupation, a career, or a profession? Whom should engineering serve-industry, government, the nation, the world, students, or the profession itself ?” (p. 5) Roadmapping is how Duderstadt describes his approach to addressing the present and future of engineering, and is evident in the organization of the book’s seven chapters.

1 Introduction

The Warning Signs

The Purpose of the Study

The Approach: Strategic Roadmapping

Concluding Remarks

2 Setting the Context: An Environmental Scan

Challenge 1: The Knowledge Economy

Challenge 2: Globalization

Challenge 3: Demographics

Challenge 4: Technological Change

Challenge 5: Technological Innovation

The Grand Challenges to Engineering

Over the Horizon

A Time of Challenge, Opportunity, and Responsibility

3 Engineering Today A Resource Map

Engineering Practice

The Knowledge Base for Engineering

Engineering Education and Training

Concluding Remarks

4 Engineering Tomorrow: Needs, Objectives, and Vision

The Changing Nature of 21st Century Engineering Practice

The Knowledge Base for Engineering

Engineering Education

The Hazards of Predicting the Future

5 How Far Do We Have to Go? A Gap Analysis

The Gap Analysis

Why Is Change So Slow? And What Can We Do About It?

6 A Roadmap to 21st-century Engineering

Transforming the Profession

Expanding the Knowledge Base

Transforming Engineering Education

The Future of Engineering Schools

A Systemic Approach to Engineering Education

Concluding Remarks

7 So . . . How Do We Get This Done?

Option 1: Benign Neglect

Option 2: Evolution (Education and Persuasion)

Option 3: Revolution (Politics and Cartels)

Option 4: Punctuated Evolution and Spontaneous Emergence



A: A Summary of Suggested Next Steps

B: A Possible Model for an “Academic Engineering Center”

C: An Example of Discovery-Innovation Institutes

D: Author Biography

The roadmap is charted in Chapter 6. The roadmap starts with a list of today’s challenges compiled into clusters for the profession, knowledge base, and education. These then flow into clusters of tomorrow’s needs in each respective category (profession, knowledge base, and education). It ends with new paradigms as the destination in each category. For education, the challenges are described as a twentieth century undergraduate curriculum that gives limited exposure to practice and is unattractive to students, resulting in high attrition rates. The need is defined as students who are liberally educated, intellectually broad, professionally trained, and lifelong learners. The new paradigm for education proposes to address these needs through post-graduate professional school, practitionertrained or intern experience, liberal pre-engineering education, structured lifelong learning, engineering as a liberal arts discipline, and renewed commitment to diversity.

More specifically, the destination for engineering education is set forth in the following goals (p. 70):

1. To adopt a systemic, research-based approach to innovation and continuous improvement in engineering education, recognizing the importance of diverse yet rigorous approaches.

2. To establish engineering as a true liberal arts discipline, by imbedding it in the general education requirements of a college degree for an increasingly technology-driven and dependent society.

3. To achieve far greater diversity among the participants in engineering, the roles of engineers needed by our nation, and the programs preparing them for professional practice.

Seven proposals with next steps are then presented and defended, in turn. Five of these correspond to engineering education, as follows. Professional Schools:

* Higher education should establish graduate professional schools of engineering that would offer practice-based degrees at the post- baccalaureate level as the entry degree into the engineering profession (p. 80).

Engineering Education:

* Undergraduate engineering should be reconfigured as an academic discipline, thereby providing students with more flexibility to benefit from the broader educational opportunities offered by the comprehensive American university with the goal of preparing them for a lifetime of further learning rather than professional practice (p. 84).

* The engineering profession should develop a structured approach to lifelong learning for practicing engineers similar to those in medicine and law (p. 87).

Engineering in the Liberal Arts:

* The academic discipline of engineering (or, perhaps more broadly, technology) should be included in the liberal arts core of a 21st-century undergraduate education for all students (p. 89).


* All participants and stakeholders in the engineering community should commit the resources, programs, and leadership necessary to enable participation in engineering to achieve a racial, ethnic, and gender diversity consistent with the American population (p. 90).

One of the paradoxes in these proposals is the assertion that engineering as an academic discipline must be viewed separately from engineering as a profession. These proposals have not been without debate, online and otherwise. Indeed, such debate shapes our daily conversation.

In Chapter 4, Duderstadt concludes the section on DiscoveryBased Learning with the following statement: “Educators should strive to create . . . immersive experiences for engineering students in an effort to teach them not only ‘how to do’, but more importantly, ‘how to be’” (p. 51). This is a reference to a characterization in The Social Life oflnformation on learning about versus learning to be (Brown and Duguid, 2002), also noted in the Academic Bookshelf of January, 2003. Learning about involves accumulating data, facts, or information, whereas learning to be requires the ability to engage in practice. According to Brown and Duguid, learning to be is a social act that binds people together with common practices, and thus involves enculturation by engaging with communities of practice. It is interesting that practice is central to the educational roadmap in Engineering for a Changing World. It is also a focal point of On the Outskirts of Engineering. Engineering design culture on campus influences how and what students learn to be as engineers, sometimes to the detriment of effective teamwork and student professional development.

On the Outskirts of Engineering reports on research conducted from 1992-1996 on identity production, i.e., the engineering campus culture and how engineering students learn professional practices. Tonso participated in and studied student design teams at the first- year, sophomore, and senior levels involved with real-world projects for industry and government clients. Prior to this research, fifteen years of Tonso’s career was spent as an engineer in the petroleum industry. Tonso writes that it is important to “first understand what it means to become an engineer” and that “becoming an engineer is a learning-in-practice process that encompasses engineering expertise, identity, gender, and power” (pp. 1-2). Further, she writes, “being inside a community with a persistent way of life, and coming to be thought of as someone who belongs there, means that . . . one sees the world in ways that cohere to cultural practices” (p. 3). The campus under study is referred to as PES, Public Engineering School. The research resulted in an in-depth cultural study of PES, ranging from classroom organization and student participation to cultural information such as engineer identity and its relation to design teams, curriculum, and a community of engineering practice.

This range of topics is shown in the nine chapters of the book

1 Women in Engineering


Women in Science and Engineering

Public Engineering School

Organization of Chapters

2 Framing the Study of PES

Cultural Production Theory

Engineer Identity

Engineering Expertise


Relations of Power

3 Design at Public Engineering School

PES Engineering Programs

Students’ Sense of Design Versus Non-Design Courses

“Fighting the Hottest Fires”

4 Mercury Team

The Mercury Team and Their Project

Mercury Team Meetings

Students’ Contributions to the Team’s Work

Other Influences on their Scientific and Technical Work

5 Sludge Team

The Sludge Team and Their Project

Regularly-Scheduled Team Meetings

Implementing the Data- Acquisition System

Students’ Contributions to the Teamwork

Other Influences on their Scientific and Technical Work

6 First-Year Design Teams

Student Teams

The Design Project

The Monday Team

The Wednesday Team

Friday Team

Summary of Learning on First- Year Design Teams

Comparing First- Year to Senior Design Teams

7 Design Classrooms

Early Design Experiences at PES

Senior Design at PES

Comparing First-Year and Fourth-Year Design Courses

8 We’re All Nerds

Eliciting Engineer Identities

“We’re All Nerds”

Over-Achievers: Academic- Achievers and Greeks

PES Expertise and Gender Status Hierarchies

Student Performances of Engineer Selves

Engineer Identities as Embodied in Engineering Practice

9 Learning on the Outskirts of Engineering

Learning Engineering Practice

Deepening Women’s Invisibility Campus-Wide

Masculinities and Institutionalizing Sexism at PES

Maintaining Men’s Dominance

On the Outskirts

Results of the study are presented throughout, and Chapter 8 makes several observations on engineer identity at PES. Conventional classrooms delivered so-called academic engineering, which was more highly recognized in campus structures as engineering expertise compared to design engineering. That is, prestige was associated with academic engineering expertise and an academicscience way of life compared to design engineering expertise. Student engineers made decisions in their everyday lives about how to act relative to campus-preferred ways of life. Students who persisted through graduation viewed themselves as an engineer, but a student’s engineer identity influenced (and was influenced by) the recognition by others. Tonso states that “to have an engineer identity, it was not enough to identify as an engineer, but one must also be identified as an engineer.”

Tonso remarks that whereas researchers have suggested that gaining membership in a community produces a shared practitioner identity, at PES, identities varied. Identity emerged from campus culture and norms for engineering expertise, gender, and power. However, the complex campus culture maintained some ways of life ahead of others and curricular reforms did not transform campus culture. Thus, curricular structures, pedagogical practices, and faculty-student interactions enabled an engineer identity to develop based on underlying ideologies and past practices. Engineer identity was produced and reproduced by student engineers on campus, and students learned to accept this as how the world is supposed to work, even with evidence to the contrary. A PES engineering education was not defined solely by its curriculum but was a complex practice.

A condensed and very readable subset of this research that emphasizes relevance to engineering education was published in the Journal of Engineering Education (Tonso, 2006). This paper is organized as a study of design teamwork. Several of the above issues are expressed succincdy. The study presented in the paper describes how student engineers practiced design teamwork, and depicts student behaviors and identities as engineers as extensions of campus culture. In Tonso’s words, it “contextualizes teamwork in a campus culture.” Contrasts in teamwork are reported among seniors and also in first- and second-year teams. As students progressed through the program, there was a tendency for students to debate less and less what defines appropriate and effective engineering practices and instead to simply accept campus preferences. However, true to the tide, there are teams that work in campus counter culture, and these teams promoted egalitarian social relations. Thus, the conclusion is that changing culture is relevant to improving teamwork and to better support of design engineering.

So, returning to the opening question, what might we conclude from Duderstadt’s study of studies and from Tonso’s campus study? Is engineering having an identity crisis? A goal of Duderstadt’s report is to “sound the alarm” (p. 9) about what engineering is and what it should be. Tonso’s report suggests that engineering school culture moves many students to the outskirts, i.e., it constrains what students become. In the end, a reader of these books may be left with more questions than answers. But, these types of questions need to become part of the daily conversation if we are to move forward collectively as an engineering community in the advancement of practice, research, and education.


Beyer, Catherine Hoffman, Gerald M. Gillmore, Andrew T. Fisher, and Peter T. Ewell. 2007. Inside the undergraduate experience: The University of Washington’s study of undergraduate learning. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid. 2002. The social life of information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

National Academy of Engineering. 2008. http:// www.engineeringchallenges.org/.

Tonso, Karen L. 2006. Teams that work Campus culture, engineer identity, and social interactions. Journal of Engineering Education 95 (1): 25-37.


(c) 2008 Journal of Engineering Education. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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