PRISM Magazine  On-Line - October 1999 - Exploring the future of engineering education
Last Word

We're Using the Wrong Vocabulary

by Frank W. Hughes

Efforts to integrate teaching and research and to enhance engineering education are being hampered by the lack of a common vocabulary between industry and academia. Even within academia, the existing vocabulary fails to categorize unambiguously the full range of necessary scholarly activities. This situation reduces the effectiveness of communication and impedes the capability of introducing change when it is needed.

We can build an improved vocabulary by beginning with the premise that education centers on knowledge and then identifying all of the functions related to knowledge that need to be included in the scholarly processes which integrate research and teaching. Ernest Boyer recommends in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate a vocabulary which divides scholarship into discovery, integration, application, and teaching. Note that Boyer cleverly selected "discovery" instead of "research." His choosing to retain "teaching," however, is the major weakness of Boyer's list. By substituting "transfer" for "teaching," this major weakness is eliminated.

For purposes of our new vocabulary, "transfer" is defined as: "to cause to pass from one person or thing to another." This definition includes both of the necessary elements that are required for learning to take place. These elements are the receiving of and the absorbing of knowledge. Words such as "transmit" and "disseminate" are unsatisfactory replacements for "teaching" because they don't contain both necessary elements.

A second significant weakness of Boyer's elements of scholarship is the omission of the scholarly function of the preservation of knowledge. This function, which has long been one of the traditional functions of universities, is best described as the scholarship of "archiving." Effective archiving will not only contribute to better re-use of knowledge but can also contribute significantly to demonstrating the value of science and engineering research, particularly if it includes credible documentation of how past results have been incorporated into current products, developments, or policies.

This improved vocabulary now consists of the following terms: discovery, integration, application, transfer, and archiving. All of the major areas of faculty responsibility identified by Donald Kennedy in his book Academic Duty seem to be addressed in this list. Kennedy's areas are preparation, teaching, mentoring, service to the university and beyond, research, publication, and integrity.

The new vocabulary will have several immediate benefits. The most important will be the enabling of improved communication between industry and academia. While most academicians are comfortable in applying the term "research" to nearly the entire range of Boyer's elements of scholarship, this might be confusing to nonacademicians. Although simplistic, mere substitution by the listener of the word "discovery" whenever the word "research" is used by an academician should quickly clarify the meaning. When the substitution doesn't make sense, the speaker is actually talking about another of the elements of scholarly activity.

As a second benefit, this more accurate way of describing the activities will permit better performance metrics to be developed. Although this is not the article in which to try to establish improved metrics, there is no reason to presume that it cannot be done.

A third benefit will be the improved planning and evaluation of research proposals. The vocabulary provides a framework which accommodates the need for following up discovery with concerns, thoughts, and plans for integration, application, and even archiving.

The new vocabulary should help us to recognize that we need a spectrum of talents in academia and that talents to perform all functions equally well are not always embedded in one person. This suggests that we give serious consideration to establishing a cadre of academic specialists beyond today's heavy emphasis on the proficient researcher. The current system promotes research over teaching and reinforces a one-size-fits-all model for all faculty members. The new vocabulary will help us reevaluate that model.

It also gives us more descriptive, substitute words to clarify our meanings and to more accurately categorize scholarly activities. Moreover, the vocabulary is consistent with the actions recommended in the Boyer Report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education, to focus on an inquiry-based undergraduate education—a need identified nearly a century ago by John Dewey, who stated that learning is based on discovery guided by mentoring rather than on the transmission of information. The new vocabulary is more student- than faculty-focused while still retaining the inquiry-based approach which appeals to the traditional researcher.


    Frank W. Hughes is manager of University Relations, Manufacturing Research and Development, Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, The Boeing Company.
    He can be reached at
    frank.w.hughes@boeing.com.

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