Doing social science as an MSCA Research Fellow

A Marie Curie Research Fellowship is about developing new research skills by doing research projects under the supervision of highly skilled experts. People who are interested in doing a fellowship like this might want to see what one looks like in reality, particularly a fellowship in the realm of social sciences and/or educational sciences (the SOC panel for European projects). This post describes research I generated myself (working with colleagues during my recent 2-year MSCA Individual Fellowship at UCL) and shares some photos taken with other researchers during my fellowship.

My time was distributed across six work packages (WPs). Today, I described work related to WP1, Qualitative Research and WP2, Multiple Methods.

These two work packages developed my skill with various social science methodologies. I am a pragmatist in that I try to implement whatever methodology is best suited to answer my specific question. And I have so many questions!

The experts I worked with at University College London (UCL) were Professor Nick Tyler, Professor John Mitchell, and the recently promoted Dr. Inês Direto. They were amazing!

At the time I joined, UCL was ranked seventh in the world for research by QS! It was a fantastic place to develop new skills. The fellowship ended December 31, 2019, but I am pleased to say I’m still working with UCL even now, as I was appointed Visiting Professor there for a five year term in addition to having the two-year fellowship. I collaborate with Inês and John nearly every single day.

London was calling my name! I jumped at the “chance” to work at one of the world’s leading research institutions even though I’d nearly just started a new Lecturing post at TU Dublin. Thankfully, my supervisors in Dublin saw value in the exchange and encouraged me to go.

My MSCA-IF research was looking at how design projects influence the cognitive and epistemological development of undergraduates in engineering and architecture. To put it more generally, I investigate how to teach engineering as effectively as possible.

You can read an overview of the fellowship here and download my final report, with similar information, here.

WP1, Qualitative Research

The intention of WP1 was to use qualitative research methods to study how engineering and architecture students learn and how they conceptualize design creation and knowledge generation. The following deliverables were listed in the fellowship application: submission of one conference paper and one journal manuscript. The list of items produced is provided below and exceeds the stated expectations. Under WP1, I delivered four conference publications and one journal publication during the fellowship period. I have an additional three conference publications and two journal manuscripts underway.

The first journal paper published under WP1 was an editorial overview of epistemological development and identity development among students published in IEEE Transactions on Education. The academic citation for it is:

CHANCE, S., Williams, B., Goldfinch, T., Adams, R. S., & Fleming, L. N. (Eds.). (August 2019). Guest Editorial Statement for the Special Issue on Using Enquiry- and Design-Based Learning to Spur Epistemological and Identity Development of Engineering Students. IEEE Transactions on Education, (62)3, 157-164. DOI 10.1109/TE.2019.2923043. (Download here).

The next set of manuscripts investigated the development of civil engineers. I conducted nine interviews with civil engineers practicing in London to explore how they think about ethics and also how they integrate global responsibility (e.g., environmental and social sustainability) into their work. This yielded two conference papers:

CHANCE, S. M., Direito, I., Lawlor, R., Cresswell-Maynard, K., Pritchard, J., Tyler, N., & Mitchell, J. (2019, July). Background and design of a qualitative study on globally responsible decision-making in civil engineering. In Proceedings of the 8th Research in Engineering Education Symposium, REES 2019-Making Connections (Vol. 8, pp. 211-220). REEN (Research in Engineering Education Network) and SASEE (South African Society for Engineering Education). (Download here or here.)

CHANCE, S. M., Direito, I., & Mitchell, J. (forthcoming). To what degree do graduate civil engineers working in London enact Global Responsibility and support UN Sustainable Development Goals? Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2020) conference in Cork, Ireland.

The same UK-based engineering study will yield a number of journal articles. The conference paper on Sustainable Development Goals, listed above, was produced for the Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2020) conference and is being expanded into a journal article. Moreover, the two following manuscripts have been drafted and are currently being reviewed and refined:

CHANCE, S. M., Mitchell, J., Direito, I., & Creswell-Maynard, K. (accepted for development). Limited by scope and client request: Challenges faced by early-career civil engineers enacting global responsibility in the UK workplace. European Journal of Engineering Education Special Issue: Early Career Engineers and the Development of Engineering Expertise.

CHANCE, S. M., Lawlor, R., Direito, I., Creswell-Maynard, K., & Mitchell, J. (under development). Ethical empowerment: A proposal for following past success to support sustainable behavior among civil engineers. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education. Special Issue: Ethics in Engineering Education and Practice.

Closely related to this UK engineering study is work I have done with the PhD student I have been supervising. The student’s doctoral thesis investigates how creativity is manifest in engineering design and production. The two following papers have been published and presented at conferences—they helped apply the student’s research on engineering organizations to higher education organizations—and many more journal papers are under development by the same team, to be submitted to various journals.

Empson, T., CHANCE, S. M., & Patel, S. (2019). A critical analysis of the contextual pressures sustainable development presents HE researchers and evaluators. Society for Research on Higher Education (SRHE) 2019 conference in Cardiff, UK.

Empson, T., CHANCE, S. M., & Patel, S. (2019, September). A critical analysis of ‘creativity’ in sustainable production and design. In 21st International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education. Glasgow, UK. (Download here or here).

All the projects listed above were helping build my skills to conduct the headline project of this Work Package. For this headline project, I conducted in-depth interviews with 26 architecture and civil engineering students in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the USA. This yielded a paper for the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), one of the world’s most prominent conferences on engineering education:

CHANCE, S., Mimirinis, M., Direito, I., Mitchell, J., & Tilley, E. (2019, June). How architecture and engineering students conceptualize design creation: Report of a pilot study. In American Society for Engineering Education (Vol. 126). American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). Tampa, Florida. (Download here or here).

Two manuscripts are now under development using the data collected. These will make a major contribution to the knowledge base related to design education:

CHANCE, S. M., Miminiris, M., & Direito, I. (under development). How architecture and engineering students conceptualize design creation. Targeting the Journal of Engineering Education or similar.

CHANCE, S. M., Miminiris, M., & Direito, I. (under development). How architecture and engineering students conceptualize the generation of new knowledge. Targeting Design Studies or similar.

By attending a May 2018 workshop at the Society for Research on Higher Education (SRHE), I discovered phenomenography would be the optimal methodology for studying the issue defined in my MSCA grant application. As a result, UCL brought in the teacher of the SRHE workshop, Dr. Mike Miminiris, and employed him as a consultant to help me and my colleagues learn this highly structured research methodology. Dr. Miminiris provided a seminar for UCL staff and has guided me, and other researchers from UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education, through the phenomenographical analysis process.

I made some minor deviations from the work plan originally proposed in my MSCA application; however, these alterations did not alter the intent of the work. For instance, I had proposed to work across sectors with the UK’s Creative Industries Foundation, but ultimately worked instead with UNESCO, Engineers without Borders UK (EWBUK) and the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering. I originally envisioned collecting data from participants in Ireland, Portugal, Poland and the United Kingdom, but ultimately my data were collected in Ireland, Portugal, the United States and the United Kingdom. I also honed the specific research questions, developing upon the originally envisioned themes of each work package, by making the sub-questions more precise within the major theme while maintaining the intent to investigate:

  • Gender (supporting diversity)
  • Epistemic cognition
  • Outcomes of design-based learning pedagogies

WP2, Multiple Methods in Research

I also shifted the intention of WP2 slightly after getting the Fellowship underway. I focused my efforts on “multiple methodologies” in engineering education research rather than solely “mixed methods” as originally proposed. This shift in definition allowed me to learn a wider range of research techniques. For instance, changes to WP2 allowed study of the psychological construct of grit.

Learning to work collaboratively as part of a highly effective research team was a major outcome of this fellowship. Another shift in WP2 was that, while I originally anticipated developing and conducting my own survey to extend WP1, I was able to learn more by working with psychologist Dr. Inês Direito to design and implement a quantitative survey for use at UCL. That study was presented/published via the Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES) in Cape Town in July 2019.

Many researchers use a single methodology, or a highly focused set of similar methodologies, to answer their questions. Thus, they tend to ask questions that can be answered with the methodologies they know. As this particular MSCA Fellow aims to conduct research projects that address a wide array of research questions, I need to develop mastery of many different methods. This way, I can use the most appropriate research method for answering each type of question when it arises. Therefore, the intention of WP2 was to build my skills in new methodologies, and also to help build the skills of the larger engineering education research (EER) community by infusing knowledge about these methodologies.

In the MSCA grant application, the following deliverables were promised under WP2: submission of one conference paper and one journal manuscript. Under WP2, however, I have already delivered five conference presentations, three published journal articles, four conference presentations, and one encyclopedia entry. In addition, I have two conference manuscripts underway. Details are provided below.

The first major project under WP2 had two focus points: (1) comparing two different methodologies and applying these methodologies to (2) study engineering teachers’ experiences implementing design- and problem-based learning. A major publication resulted:

CHANCE, S. M., Duffy, G., & Bowe, B. (2019). Comparing grounded theory and phenomenology as methods to understand lived experience of engineering educators implementing Problem-Based Learning. European Journal of Engineering Education, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2019.1607826. (Download here or here).

The content was also delivered at a leading conference:

CHANCE, S. M. & Duffy, G. (2018). A model for spurring organizational change based on faculty experiences working together to implement Problem-Based Learning. American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Download here, here, or here).

The above publications are part of a larger effort by this Fellow to support diverse students. As a result of this MSCA, I have emerged as a highly visible member and leader of the EER community globally. As part of this community, I am trying to develop better teaching practices (androgies, or pedagogies for adults). To support this effort, I co-authored an overview on socio-cultural diversity in engineering education that was published in a leading journal:

CHANCE, S., Bottomly, L., Panetta, K., & Williams, B. (Eds.). (November 2018). Guest Editorial Statement for the Special Issue on Increasing the Socio-Cultural Diversity of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Related Fields. IEEE Transactions on Education, (61)4, 261-264. DOI 10.1109/TE.2018.2871656. (Download here).

Work conducted via WP2 also helped inform an encyclopedia entry I authored:

CHANCE, S. M. (2020). Problem-Based Learning: Use in Engineering Disciplines. In Amey, M. J. & David, M. E. (Eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Higher Education, 5v. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Under WP2, I also interviewed 20 women studying engineering in Ireland. This added to the set of interviews I had previously conducted, and it is allowing me to produce longitudinal studies on women’s experiences learning engineering and working in engineering teams. Data analyzed to date focus on the experiences of: (a) a single mother studying engineering and overcoming challenges and (b) Middle Eastern women studying engineering in Ireland. In the future, journal articles will be prepared, related to both topics. Already-published work on this project includes one conference publication on the single mother:

Williams, B., CHANCE, S. M., & Direito, I. (2019). No one really minded a female barmaid, but I don’t know they’d “not mind” a female engineer: One student’s journey. UK-Ireland Engineering Education Research Network 2019 conference in Coventry, UK. (Download here).

Already-published work on this project also includes multiple conference papers about Middle Eastern students’ experiences:

CHANCE, S. M., & Williams, B. (forthcoming). Here you have to be mixing: Collaborative learning on an engineering program in Ireland as experienced by a group of Middle Eastern young women. EDUCON2020 – IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference in Porto, Portugal.

CHANCE, S. M. & Williams, W. (2018). Preliminary findings of a phenomenological study of Middle Eastern women’s experiences studying engineering in Ireland. American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Download here or here).

An additional report of the Middle Eastern students’ experiences was also presented at the following conference but was inadvertently omitted from the proceedings:

CHANCE, S. M. & Williams, W. (2018). Middle Eastern Women’s Experiences of Collaborative Learning in Engineering in Ireland. International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (ICL) in Kos Island, Greece. (Download here).

In a similar vein to the study on Middle Eastern women studying in Ireland, an additional conference paper has been drafted that relates to people studying engineering abroad: 

Direito, I., Williams, W., & CHANCE, S. M. (under development). Brexit impact: Perspectives of Portuguese students and staff in the UK. The 4th International Conference of the Portuguese Society for Engineering Education (CISPEE 2020) in Lisbon, Portugal. (This one we shifted to SEFI 2020 since COVID postponed the CISPEE conference.)

At the start of this MSCA, I and my colleague at UCL decided they also wanted to learn to conduct systematic literature reviews. They published individual studies using this methodology at the Societe Europeenne pour la Formation des Ingenieurs (SEFI) conference in 2018, and they joined with a third colleague they met there to later conduct workshops on the topic and publish a journal article collaboratively. The citation below is for our initial conference paper:

CHANCE, S., & Direito, I. (2018, October). Identification and preliminary review of doctoral theses in engineering education that have used phenomenological methods. In Proceedings of the 46th SEFI Annual Conference 2018. Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship for engineering education excellence. Societe Europeenne pour la Formation des Ingenieurs (SEFI). Copenhagen, Denmark. (Download here).

After joining together, the team selected one of the initial conference papers and developed it into a journal article on the construct of grit and how it has been studied in engineering education.

Direito, I., CHANCE, S. M., & Malik, M. (2019). The study of grit in engineering education research: A systematic literature review. European Journal of Engineering Education. DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2019.1688256. (Download here).

My colleagues and I were able to study and critically evaluate how grit has been researched and reported in engineering education and formulate recommendations to guide others reporting work on grit in EER. This was one of the studies where my colleagues and I were practicing the research methodology known as “systematic literature review” which lead to multiple conference papers as well as the journal article listed above.

Direito, I., CHANCE, S., Tilley, E., & Mitchell, J. (2019, July). Assessing the grit and mindset of incoming engineering students with an emphasis on gender. In Proceedings of the 8th Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES 2019) (Vol. 8, pp. 253-261). REEN (Research in Engineering Education Network) and SASEE (South African Society for Engineering Education). (Download here or here).

Final Report of my MSCA Individual Fellowship

My Marie Curie fellowship ended the last day of 2019 and I had 60 days to complete my final report. For Marie Curie Research Fellows, it can be difficult to figure out what will be required for reporting, based on discussion threads I read online.

Fellows don’t have much indication of what the report will entail until the European Commission’s “Participant Portal” invites them to submit the final report. Even then, it’s not clear how long the descriptions will need to be or where the report template is located. Only after you enter the text for the public statements, will the system inform you how long the text must be. Surprises I encountered in the official reporting process: The text you post for the public is limited to just 7480 characters! There’s specific button you’ve got to locate that contains the blank PDF template for the full report.

This blog post contains the public synopsis of my 2018-2019 project as well as a link to a PDF of the full report, which uses the required template and thus may be of help to other fellows:

I’ve posted this blog for (a) people interested in the research I’ve done and also (b) other MSCA fellows who have questions about the reporting process. This particular post shares my short, public synopsis (below). It’s likely I’ll post more detailed info in coming blogs, along with photos of the MSCA grant period that I’ve never posted before.

Getting the photos loaded onto WordPress has provided me a pleasant trip down memory lane. I plan to share more of these in coming posts.

Public Synopsis

1Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project (For the final period, include the conclusions of the action)

This section should include information on:

  • What is the problem/issue being addressed?
  • Why is it important for society?
  • What are the overall objectives?

The Action “Designing Engineers: Harnessing the Power of Design Projects to Spur Cognitive and Epistemological Development of STEM Students” looks at how engineering and architecture students learn, and how design projects and teamwork affect students’ thinking and overall development. The research questions how students learn to design and how their thinking changes over time with regard to what knowledge is, where it comes from, and how it gets validated; their views on this constitute their epistemologies. Such topics are important because society needs more engineers and more STEM graduates. Not only is there widespread lack of engagement, but problems also have been identified in graduate engineers’ ability to think holistically—today’s graduates do not seem prepared to identify and address global challenges in the comprehensive way society needs. Although engineering is often perceived as a dry, technical subject there is great room for creativity.

Architecture programs around the world are filled with highly engaged students. In engineering, there has been a move to teach in more active, hands-on, project-based ways that incorporate design, as done in architecture. Engineering can learn from architecture’s historic success in engaging and teaching students to design, but engineering has placed more focus than architecture has on understanding how students learn. The fields of engineering and architecture education have much to learn from each other. 

Objectives of this Marie Skłodowska Curie Action (MSCA) have been to (a) develop and promote better ways to teach and support STEM students; (b) help transform engineering into a more diverse and creative field; and (c) investigate questions surrounding the theme, To what extents do design projects influence the cognitive and epistemological development of undergraduates in engineering and architecture? A parallel goal of the MSCA Individual Fellowship is to foster the development of the individual researcher (that’s me!).

2Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far (For the final period please include an overview of the results and their exploitation and dissemination)

Work was conducted via 6 work packages (WPs). WP1 comprised 3 qualitative research studies that yielded 4 conference publications and 1 journal publication to date, with an additional 3 conference publications and 2 journal manuscripts underway. WP2 sought to build skill with multiple research methodologies. In it, the Fellow delivered 5 conference presentations, 3 published journal articles, and 1 encyclopedia entry, with 2 conference manuscripts underway. WP3 involved developing a special-focus journal issue. The Fellow exceeded goals by spearheading development of 2 different special focus journal issues (published 2018 & 2019). The Fellow is leading the development of a third special focus issue (for 2020). In WP4, the Fellow delivered 20 public engagement activities to popularize STEM and communicate findings. In WP5, for researcher training and transfer-of-knowledge, the Fellow attended 70 intensive training workshops and multi-day conferences. She provided leadership in publishing and research at university, national, and international levels. To transfer of knowledge, she conducted 18 workshops for researchers and educators; she provided supervision and mentoring for early career researchers. She was appointed Associate Editor of IEEE Transactions on Education, Editorial Board member of the European Journal of Engineering Education, and serves as Chair of the global Research in Engineering Education Network (REEN). During the grant, she earned a teaching qualification in the UK (SFHEA) and secured €56,000 (as co-PI) for education projects in Spain, a £11,200 donation to UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineers via EWBUK, and €237,727 in contract work from UCL Consulting. The project was managed under WP6.

Results of this MSCA are reported in: (1) forthcoming papers on how architecture and civil engineering students conceptualize design creation and knowledge generation; (2) forthcoming papers on ethics, sustainability/SDGs and early-career engineers from a study on UK civil engineers’ practices and perceptions of global responsibility; (3) papers about women’s experiences studying engineering including a longitudinal study (that uses data collected over four years in Ireland regarding Middle Eastern women’s experiences studying engineering abroad) and analysis using the framework known as A Hero’s Journey (of a single mother’s challenges and successes studying and working in engineering); (4) a systematic review of grit in engineering education; a multi-method study of engineering teachers’ experiences implementing problem based learning (PBL). The data sets collected during this MSCA will inform and enhance dozens of publications in the coming years, in addition to the ones produced and published during the fellowship itself.

3Progress beyond the state of the art, expected results until the end of the project and potential impacts (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

This MSCA has pushed the frontiers of engineering education research (EER) forward in a numerous ways. The 2 special focus issues the Fellow spearheaded have shed new light onto socio-cultural diversity and engineering students’ identity formation and epistemic development. The educational blogs, STEM activity books for kids, and fun, creative events conducted by the Fellow are helping popularize engineering—the first STEM book was nominated for an award of excellence in the UK. The engineering education journals, and the workshops and community up-skilling events led by the Fellow are helping cultivate broader human capacity to produce quality research in the field of EER (e.g., Chairing the Research in Engineering Education Network to help raise the quality, credibility, and usefulness of EER globally and delivering Master Classes to help engineering teachers and researchers upskill).

This MSCA allowed the Fellow to develop agility with many different research methodologies and promote best practices to the larger EER community (e.g., co-authoring a study on “grit” in engineering education and identifying how to report it for maximum impact). The Fellow’s project on UK civil engineers exposed shortfalls in ethics and sustainability education and identified how engineers learn about these crucial topics, in that research participants said they did not learn enough about them in university. The Fellow’s PhD student is generating important new knowledge about processes and organizational systems that support creativity in engineering production; working together they are generating new models that describe shortfalls in engineering for UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and illustrate what can be done to address them. Through the Fellow’s research on architecture and civil engineering students, valuable new understandings are emerging related to how students conceptualize both design creation and knowledge generation.

Impacts anticipated from the MSCA are increased and improved: focus by engineering educators on developmental patterns shared among engineering students; student retention as a result of improved support; diversity as techniques to support minority students are increasingly employed; overall teaching in engineering education as a result increasingly credible and useful research; focus on ethics and sustainability in engineering education; and production of tools and models to help engineering educators foster creativity and engineering firms contribute to realizing the UN’s SDGs. A final overarching impact is enhanced public perception of engineering as a fun and creative field.

The commission also requested:

4 – Address (URL) of the project’s public website

5- Images attached to the Summary for publication

Down the Rabbit Hole, from Bath to London

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Beautiful “ferry” trees at Avebury in the UK’s Wiltshire region.

Last week I crossed the threshold into a brave new world. I traveled over to the UK, my soon-to-be home, twice to learn more about the place.

First, to celebrate Ireland’s bank holiday weekend, my partner Aongus and I flew to Bath. We rented a car so we could visit Stonehenge, the flight of locks at Devizes (the Caen Hill flight of the Kennet and Avon canal), Avebury which is similar to Stonehenge but larger, and the picturesque village of Castle Combe. In the city of Bath, we toured the ruins of the old Roman baths, the bell tower of Bath Abbey, Royal Crescent and the townhouse museum at One Royal Crescent, and weir and the Putney Bridge, as well as getting Watsu treatments and a night time soak with spectacular views from the rooftop pool at the Thermal Spa.

Stonehenge was spectacular, but Avebury had an even more mystical feel. The majestic old fairy trees with their thick boughs and knotted roots make it feel as if you’re stepping foot into C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or the Wonderland Lewis Carroll created for Alice. (Both of these were English writers, who could well have stood beneath the same magical trees we found here.) Wikipedia provides a quick reference to the meaning of ferry trees: “Many types of trees found in the Celtic nations are considered to be sacred, whether as symbols, or due to medicinal properties, or because they are seen as the abode of particular nature spirits. Historically and in folklore, the respect given to trees varies in different parts of the Celtic world.”

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Meeting with UCL’s Professor Nick Tyler.

After flying home, I flew back to London on short notice for four meetings on Wednesday–because my new colleagues at University College London had time to meet me and it was “review week” at DIT.

These meetings were in preparation for the start of my new Marie Curie research fellowship in January. The EU is providing funding for me to work at UCL for two years, to further upgrade my skills in educational research. During my short visit, I met with my primary supervisor Professor Nick Tyler who has an amazing record of research in transportation engineering and educational innovation. I also met with my secondary supervisor, Professor John Mitchell, who directs UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education (CEE). I also got to meet with the newest member of CEE’s research team, Dr. Inês Direito, who I’ll get to collaborate with in projects. All this in addition to visiting UCL’s European Office and quick chats with two other colleagues, Emanuela Tilley and Dr. Arnie McKinley, both originally from my own side of the Atlantic.

Overall it was a very productive day, and I even got two grant proposals read in route.

Across the span of the week, I had great experiences at work and at play. I can’t wait to get back to London, Bath, and the Wiltshire region of England for more learning, and more novel adventures.