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By Elizabeth Godfrey and Lesley Parker

What Is Our Culture?

Understanding it is key to developing ways to change it.

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For more than 10 years, culture and cultural change have been spotlighted as key to systemic reform in engineering education. But how well do we, as engineering educators, understand the complex, multifaceted concept of culture and its relationship to behavior and practices? We need to map the dimensions of the cultural landscape in engineering education so that, to use a Google Earth analogy, we can have an overview and zoom in on specific attributes.

Our research at the engineering school of a large New Zealand research university identified six cultural dimensions:

  • An Engineering Way of Thinking: A deeply ingrained assumption is that engineering deals with a tangible, measurable, quantifiable reality grounded in mathematics. Valued knowledge is seen as knowledge that is relevant to real life.
  • An Engineering Way of Doing: Permeating the conversations of faculty and students is the belief that anything worthwhile is hard and challenging. Content or subject areas seen as "soft" or "easy" are devalued.
  • Being an Engineer: High academic achievement and above-average ability in mathematics and scientific understanding are seen as fundamental attributes. Other qualities include self-reliance and capability; pragmatism; conservatism in dress, politics and manners; and an ability to "play hard."
  • Acceptance of Difference: A core of long-serving male faculty share a high degree of homogeneity in educational background and values. New faculty are assumed to bring similar attitudes, although this assumption faces a challenge as older faculty retire and new disciplines enter the curriculum. Still, evidence of competence and achievement in teaching and research earn respect and inclusion.
  • Relationships: Faculty and students generally believe in strong interdepartmental cooperation and in the importance to success of friendship among students and teamwork. A "loner" would have difficulty.
  • Relationship to the Environment:┬áThe school appears to see itself as having a separate, "go-it-alone" identity from the rest of the university, one rooted in a sense of superiority in its ability to solve problems.

These six dimensions - taken-for-granted understandings and tacitly shared values and knowledge - provide a holistic framework to begin to categorize the values, beliefs, and assumptions that underpin the culture of engineering education. While the findings locate the culture of one institution in a particular context of space and time, the practices and behavior described often transcend differences in engineering specializations, institutions, and even national boundaries. More important, they illustrate the complex interactions characterizing culture.

Using these dimensions, we can generate new questions, such as these: What kinds of knowledge do we value? Is there a prevalent way of thinking? How do we demonstrate that? What do our practices tell us about our assumptions of the right way to teach and learn? What are the attributes and qualities of an engineer? Who fits in and is successful? How is difference accepted and valued? How do people relate to one another in this culture? What does this tell us about hierarchies and rules of behavior? Finally, what is our relationship to the rest of the university, the profession, and the community?

By reflecting on these questions, departments, disciplines, and institutions can gain a deeper understanding of the engineering education culture and begin to develop a strategy for implementing change.

Elizabeth Godfrey is past president of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education and a senior research fellow in the faculty of engineering and information technology at the University of Technology Sydney. Lesley Parker is an emeritus professor in the Science and Mathematics Education Center at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. This article was adapted from "Mapping the Cultural Landscape in Engineering Education" in the January 2010 Journal of Engineering Education.




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