“Objectively” Speaking

Today, those of us doing qualitative research about the education of engineers are enlarging the vocabulary of the engineering community, which has — by and large — thought of research as an objective, fact-finding, technical science.

As Frank Daly commented on an earlier post, engineers are taught to think objectively. Most of the profession has embraced straightforward cause-and-effect logic. This appears to be the case worldwide.

Among researchers, this way of thinking is known as “positivism.” It assumes that there are identifiable facts that stand outside the realm of human intention.

Planning for Sustainability class I conducted at The College of William and Mary.

Discussing water quality in the Planning for Sustainability class I conducted at The College of William and Mary.

Even today, when most people think of research, they imagine test tubes and petri dishes, statistical charts and mathematical equations. They think that science and technology are strictly fact-based.

However, there’s much to be gained by expanding that view — and to learning from what people know, perceive, and experience.

Today, qualitative researchers are designing and describing new ways to conceive of knowledge, new ways to see and explain “things” that happen in the world. They have created many new methods for viewing, studying, and describing phenomena.  Each method fits a specific way of seeing and understanding the world. Each set of ideas about how things work can be called a “paradigm,” and each paradigm filters what various groups of people know and how they come to know it.

Definition of paradigm.

Definition of paradigm.

Everyone uses paradigms (which are sometime also called schemas), although many people are not familiar with the terms and most are not even aware that they have adopted one specific set of ideas without considering alternatives.

That’s like never considering that you could fry, or bake, or broil, or grill fish. Or even eat it raw. Imagine being stuck in just one way of doing things! Yet most of us are when it comes to philosophical ideas, conceptions of knowledge, and how to learn.

By using qualitative methods to study events and engineering-related phenomena, engineering education researchers like myself are helping engineers see things that their traditional way of seeing things masked.

Definition of schema.

Definition of schema.

Steven Feldman of Case Western Reserve University helped do this at NASA. Following the Challenger disaster, Feldman assessed NASA’s organizational culture and he published his findings in 2004. He found evidence that the shared philosophy within NASA led to calamity. There was a pervasive belief in objectivity, fact, and pure physical science. It led people to ignore important issues and it got in the way of success. Employees were so focused on quantitative data that they failed to see gaping holes in their problem-solving structures. He, and others like Zingale and Hummel (2012), have insisted that NASA and other organizations can benefit from qualitative research. These experts want qualitative research to be conducted both by and about NASA. Although the Space Administration studies phenomena, it has been doing so without using qualitative methods, like phenomenology, that could yield significant findings.

I’ll explain some basics of phenomenology as a way of seeing, analyzing, and understanding the world, in an upcoming blog.