Data Galore: Research on Engineering Education


Opening day of the Bridge project last fall.

I’ve collected oodles of data on this project where I’m studying women’s experiences in engineering education across Europe, and I admit it’s been a fierce new challenge for me to manage all the data and use it effectively. Last week alone, I conducted three new 60-90 minute interviews that will need to be transcribed, read and reread and reread, coded and analyzed in concert with others.

I’ve had quite a bit of help getting as far with this project as I am–having completed 47 initial interviews in three countries (Ireland, Poland, and Portugal) and about 15 follow-up interviews (in Ireland) to date.


Two of the teachers for DIT’s bridge project.

Many thanks go to Allison Wagner, who did a two-month internship with me last spring, for her help conducting and transcribing five of the follow-up interviews with Middle Eastern women. Additional thanks go to Bill Williams and Raquel Barreira for their help with the Portuguese interviews, as well as to Tais Carvalho, Ivan Garcia, and Michael Carr who assisted with translation. In addition to this, my past PhD supervisor, Pam Eddy, is (still today, seven years post-PhD) always ready and willing to offer astute advice and for that I am extremely grateful. DIT’s Brian Bowe was instrumental in early work on this project, and my colleagues at DIT have provided insight and enthusiasm on a daily basis—most recently Ted Burke and Claire McBride.

img_3438It’s a lot of work and a big team effort, but it has its benefits. What I am learning directly improves my teaching and it also helps me advise my colleagues, with whom I often discuss teaching strategies.

On other fronts, I have a long way to go. Although I’ve presented findings to policy makers and researchers, I still struggle to finalize manuscripts for publication. This is a focus on my current fellowship at UCL–developing proficiency in publishing. I have made really swift progress though, and I look forward to showing you some results soon!

Collecting Data


Wednesday’s RoboSumo class was going a-ok!

I’m gearing up for the new research fellowship by collecting data here in Ireland–data that I can analyze once I’m situated in London.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing women who are studying engineering in Dublin. Most of the women I’ve interviewed in this country have completed the design projects that you’ve seen in my prior blogs (RoboSumo, bridge design, and Energy Cube). Although I can’t show you the actual participants in my study for reasons of confidentiality, I’ve included a photo from this past Wednesday’s RoboSumo lab. Our big tournament is in two weeks, and excitement is mounting.  I’m asking students who took these courses three years ago about their experiences with engineering and with working in teams.

I truly believe that interviewing women from DIT over a period of years has helped me become a better teacher, particularly since I started teaching on these projects last autumn. In prior years, I was lending a hand occasionally in Energy Cube, RoboSumo, and bridge design, but most of my time was spent observing classroom and team dynamics.


Trinity College’s main courtyard in all its mid-day splendor.

Today, I got to sit down and talk with a lovely young woman who started in DIT’s program four years ago, and who transferred to Trinity’s engineering program half-way through. To do this, I hiked across town to Trinity’s campus and the two of us chatted for 80 minutes, over coffee at Trinity’s Science Gallery. I hope the audio recording is clear enough, as I normally work in a much more controlled environment. There were far more distractions today than usual, yet the content of the interview was fascinating.

I interviewed all these women in the past as well, when they were first year engineering students, and now I’m catching back up with them after they completed several years of study. This is what’s referred to as a “longitudinal” study, and I am looking at changes and development over time. I have three more interviews lined up for next week, and I can not wait to hear about these students’ adventures in education and engineering.


“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.

Necessary Evil

I felt pretty good after an hour of transcribing.

The veggies I had for lunch were wearing off. I’d polished off the goat cheese Dave left me in the fridge.

I’d spent two hours transcribing interviews — and that puts a real strain on the back!  All told, I put in about five hours transcribing today. (I have so much more of it ahead of me this year. Manually transferring voice recordings into word files is excruciating — but it’s a necessary evil of qualitative research.)

Feeling wilted, I decided to treat myself to some veggie nut loaf at Mulligan’s Grocer, a restaurant I’ve mentioned before.  Yum!  This is one of Dave’s favorite meals in Dublin.  It perked me right up!

Returning home, I conquered the interview tape by 10:30 PM and found reason to celebrate when I got some good news from Google Alerts.  William and Mary just published a story about the class I taught this summer.  Check it out!