Exploring the Culture of Engineering Education: The Journey

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My aim in this presentation is to chart some of the challenges I faced in attempting to define the culture of engineering education, in the hope that my experiences might highlight issues encountered when engineering educators cross disciplinary boundaries to educational research. At this time I am making the assumption that my audience is predominantly engineering educators with an enthusiasm for (but relative lack of experience in) educational research methodologies, while acknowledging that as my own experience continues to build, I am positioning myself as a fellow learner rather than an expert.

My research began in the mid 1990s, when the women in engineering community in Australia was spotlighting the masculinity of the culture of engineering as an inhibitor for increasing women's participation. This focus was illustrated by the first Women in Engineering forum in 1994, aptly named "Transforming cultures: Nurturing diversity in organizations" and in the position paper prepared for the 1996 Australian review of engineering education (Roberts & Lewis, 1996). Literature from this community (McLean et al, 1997) and internationally (Carter & Kirkup, 1990; Hacker, 1981; McIlwee & Robinson, 1992; Tonso, 1996a) not only highlighted the masculinity of the culture of engineering, but exposed the lack of cultural studies from within the mainstream of engineering education. Although the concept of culture is common within the wider educational community, it has only been in the last 10 years that the terms "culture" and "cultural change" have increasingly entered the engineering education discourse and literature, with definitions, perspectives and understandings abounding. I saw this focus as emanating from calls for reform in engineering education that cited change in the culture as "key to systemic reform" (Bucciarelli et al, 2000; Cordes et al, 1999) and the need for engineering educators to "question their implicit assumptions and radically reorder their priorities and practices" (IEAust, 1996). These calls for change in the culture of engineering education appeared to rely on the premise that engineering educators understood the concept of "culture" and its relationship to observable behaviours and practices. The literature of the time and the plethora of papers at international engineering education conferences since the 1996 review, have confirmed for me that a very high proportion of engineering educators do not share the familiarity and understanding of social scientists around the concept of culture. The focus appears to have continued to be on the characteristics of the behaviours and practices, "what is and what they should be" rather than the values, beliefs and assumptions that underpin "how they came to be". Amid the wealth of literature and reports detailing curriculum and program changes as products of those reforms, the engineering education culture has, however, rarely been defined nor has it been made clear exactly how those changes have impacted on culture (Baba and Pawlowski, 2001; Godfrey, 2001; Merton et al, 2004). Baba & Pawlowski (2001) went so far as to suggest that "limited or deficient understandings of culture hampered earlier efforts to modify or influence academic or organizational culture".

By the end of 1997, I had identified a lack of theorising around engineering education as a disciplinary culture, which led me to the realisation that building substantive theory around the concept of culture with respect to engineering education had the potential to contribute to a better understanding of the role of that culture in the participation of women. Although imperfectly formed at that early stage, my main research question was: "What are the dimensions/ elements of the culture of engineering education in the case study institution and how do they interact with gender?"

My first challenge was an excess of enthusiasm, coupled with a personal lack of academic background in the social sciences and more particularly in cultural theory. …


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