WSU researcher explores how engineers apply learned concepts in the workplace

December 09, 2010

PULLMAN, Wash. - Engineering education has been around for several centuries, but for the first time, researchers at Washington State University are looking at what engineering concepts engineers actually use and how they apply those concepts in the workplace.

Shane Brown, assistant professor in the WSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a $400,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for a four-year project to better understand how practicing civil engineers learn engineering concepts. He then hopes to develop a model of engineering thinking about these concepts and research-based curricular materials.

Traditionally, engineering curricula have simply been focused on concepts that professors, who may or may not have design experience, think are important. So, students learn about concepts such as fluid mechanics, shear stress, conservation of energy, or momentum, as well as plenty of equations.

"But, we don't know how engineers actually think about those concepts,'' says Brown.

So, for instance, when someone mentions a word, such as dog, we picture an image in our head. But, our idea of a 'dog' varies dramatically from person to person, depending on our experiences.

So how do practicing engineers think about shear stress? Do they think of a concept in a way that is completely different from what is actually taught in the classroom? What do they picture in their minds as they are working on the design of a building or a bridge? How do they use this concept to develop efficient and innovative designs?

"It's a story we relate to, not an equation,'' says Brown. "We want to know the story that engineers think of and present that in the curriculum.''

As part of the project, Brown will be surveying approximately 1,000 practicing civil engineers with several years of work experience. The engineers will take a 'concept inventory,' a test that examines their understanding of specific concepts. From those surveyed, Brown will then do more in-depth interviews of approximately 100 engineers as he finds patterns in their understanding of concepts. A graduate student will also intern at an engineering firm to conduct further research on engineers' "shared and situated knowledge'' of fundamental civil engineering concepts, says Brown.

The project builds on work that Brown and his colleagues have done that looks at the way engineering students learn or misunderstand concepts that are taught in the classroom.

"Given that one of the primary objectives of engineering education is to train engineers for the engineering workplace, it is vital to determine what concepts are important to engineering design,'' says Brown. "This study is significant because it fundamentally advances the field by developing a model of conceptual understanding in civil engineers.''

Brown says that he is operating under the premise that engineering practice is good, and that engineers do understand fundamentally important concepts.

"But if I am wrong and practicing engineers still have misconceptions, we should have the evidence to improve it,'' he says.

Brown hopes the project builds a meaningful link between engineering education and engineering practice.

"I think we're getting right to the heart of it - we're finding out what engineers know and how to get that into the curriculum,'' he says.

Brown is one of fifty-three engineering educators selected to participate in the upcoming National Academy of Engineering's Frontiers of Engineering Education program. The symposium will be held December 13-16 in Irvine, Calif. The program will focus on ways to ensure that students learn the engineering fundamentals, the expanding knowledge base of new technology, and the skills necessary to be an effective engineer or engineering researcher.

Washington State University

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