Engineers need to adjust their approach when conducting research on education.
In the push to improve engineering education, it is often noted that engineering faculty receive little or no formal training in pedagogy. Now, engineering faculty are themselves conducting much more research on education and learning. Yet because they lack training in educational research methods, it is important to ask whether engineers’ usual methods are suited to this kind of research; and, if not, how to fill the gap.
To address the challenges of educational scholarship, engineers need to shift their thinking about research. First, they must recognize that what might seem like unnecessary “extra steps” are in fact crucial to the educational research process. Such steps include identifying and describing an underlying learning theory, explaining the applicability or transferability of results and describing how abstract concepts (for example, confidence) are measured. Trained in technical rather than educational research, the typical engineering educator is not accustomed to addressing explicitly such considerations, as these steps are assumed in technical work.
Engineering and science also feature a high degree of consensus on important research questions, appropriate methods, and what constitutes convincing evidence. This allows for a kind of communication shorthand, since the motivation for the work is generally understood and accepted by all. Yet achieving results that become a universally accepted truth is less likely in education research than in engineering. Because the objects of study are human beings, with their complex, varied, and changing perspectives, universality is essentially impossible.
Second, most engineering faculty members are more comfortable with numbers than with qualitative assessments, and therefore tend to value statistical significance as the most convincing evidence. Yet with some training, engineers can come to appreciate the ways that qualitative and quantitative approaches complement each other in augmenting our understanding of learning in an engineering context. In my studies of engineering faculty at the Rigorous Research in Engineering Education workshop, I have observed many faculty members shifting from quantitative-only research designs to mixed methods or qualitative approaches after refining their research questions, considering theories, and learning more about measurement and research methods.
Third is the issue of seeking help to navigate this new territory. The cultures of the Ph.D. and of engineering encourage faculty to be self-sufficient, independently training themselves in new techniques necessary for their work. Yet given the different requirements of educational research, it makes sense to enlist the help of a collaborator with complementary expertise. Understanding what scholars of education and other disciplines can offer—for example, help with assessment, curriculum design, educational technology, statistics, educational psychology, gender studies and policy—and being aware of reward systems in different departments and institutions, can help discussions go more smoothly. Both collaborators should see benefits for their careers. Engineers shouldn’t hesitate to ask acquaintances to recommend a collaborator. Often, they need to be the ones to initiate joint efforts, since they are most aware of the problems in engineering education that require study.
These are just a few of the difficulties engineers face when embarking on education scholarship. If the membership of ASEE is any indication, many believe it is crucial to work on improving engineering education. Knowing in advance what to expect can help overcome challenges as they arise, or avert them altogether.
Maura Borrego is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. This article is adapted from “Conceptual Hurdles Experienced by Engineering Faculty Becoming Engineering Education Researchers,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 96, 2007, and the forthcoming “Characteristics of Successful Cross-disciplinary Engineering Education Collaborations,” in JEE, co-authored by L. K. Newswander.