Fostering International Engineering Education Research Collaborations: On the Need to Think beyond the Workshop Format

Article excerpt


In Australia and many other nations and regions, engineering education is emerging as a vibrant research field (AAEE, 2008; Godfrey & Hadgraft, 2009; Lohmann & de Graaff, 2008; SEFI, 2008), bolstered by a diverse and growing array of conferences and workshops, graduate courses and degree programs, university centres for faculty development and research, funding sources, and publication outlets (Jesiek et al, 2009a; 2009b; 2011). Yet despite these advances, engineering education is a relatively young field, and its international profile remains underdeveloped. Extensive networks are not currently in place to connect researchers from different countries who share an interest in similar topics and approaches.

This lack of networks is to the detriment of engineering education research (EER), because when emerging fields do not develop an international profile, scholars in isolated local contexts run the risk of "reinventing the wheel", which hinders the field's development (Lemaine et al, 1976). As recently as 2007, criticisms of reinventing the wheel by not connecting engineering education scholarship to prior published work have been levied against the US engineering education community (Borrego, 2007). On the other hand, fields that internationalise benefit from, among other things, reduced parochialism, higher quality research, broader and more varied perspectives, resources, global awareness, dissemination of best practices, and increased collaboration (BISO, 2008; Bozeman & Corley, 2004; Leong & Ponterotto, 2003; Shepherd et al, 2000; Thelen, 1992; Wheeler et al, 2005; Yang, 2002). The risk of reinventing the wheel is reduced if researchers are aware of what has been done elsewhere and do not need to repeat a certain study, and if they can get new ideas and advice from international colleagues on what works and what does not. If engineering educators are to reap the benefits of internationalisation and take advantage of the growth of EER communities around the world, they should work to support the development of an international research community and to foster international research collaborations.

To that end, we organised three workshops in 2009 with support from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the most recent of which took place in Adelaide, Australia. Workshops are a prevalent mechanism for advancing engineering and science research and education in the US. They are regularly funded by the NSF as a means of generating and disseminating knowledge, and sparking new initiatives. In fact, many NSF requests for proposals include a separate track for workshop proposals. While the hope is that these workshops will lead to long-term projects and collaborations, the relatively short funding period for a one-time event means that long-term impacts are usually not evaluated. Similarly, given the sustained interactions of participants through professional societies and communication technologies, it can be difficult to trace a successful collaboration back to a single event such as a workshop. Thus, workshops are perpetuated in the US out of scientific and funding tradition rather than definitive evidence supporting their efficacy. When workshop proposals are evaluated, it is often on the basis of demonstrating the need to advance a particular scholarly area by connecting various groups with each other.

In this paper we build upon our prior preliminary analysis (Beddoes et al, 2009c) and discuss the results of the three workshops we organised, with the aim of identifying what our experiences offer to others wanting to promote international research collaborations. After a literature review and brief presentation of background information, we discuss participant feedback and evaluations, as well as our analysis of key factors that shaped the character and outcomes of the events. We then advance the argument that organisers and funders should think of workshops as one strategy among many for fostering international collaborations, and we conclude with some specific recommendations both for running successful workshops as well as exploring other avenues for promoting collaborations. …


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