Social Science Research in Engineering Education: Lessons Learned

Although it is possible for engineers to read social science literature and adapt the methods to educational research on their own, this is similar to having an electrical engineer muddle through a chemical engineering problem rather than working with a chemical engineer. Acknowledging this difficulty, ABET requires engineering students learn to work in multi-disciplinary teams because the process of muddling through another engineer’s discipline could be not only inefficient but dangerous. In a similar fashion, engineering faculty who want to do cutting edge qualitative research are well served by working with colleagues from social science disciplines. The transition to working with social scientists, while both intellectually stimulating and professionally rewarding, can be difficult. We started to think about the challenges we’ve overcome when we wrote about the research process for a recent paper [Foor, Walden, Trytten 2007] in the Annals of Research in Engineering Education [Foor 2007, Walden 2007, Trytten 2007].

In this paper, we’ll expand on the main lessons we’ve learned during the last five years of working on a qualitative research team that includes engineers, scientists, and social scientists. The first lesson is to internalize new theoretical frameworks, beyond positivism (everything is knowable and there is a single right answer for every question) and even beyond the educational psychology approach recently put forward by Borrego in the Journal of Engineering Education [Borrego 2007]. While changing frameworks is conceptually simple, rather like changing the postulates in mathematics, in practice it takes years of careful thought and practice, missteps, and encouragement from the social scientists. The second lesson is to understand the timeline of qualitative research. Qualitative research, particularly methods like ethnography, can require long periods of data collection and analysis before the first publications appear. This timeline needs to be understood not only by the engineers, but by people evaluating the engineers’ productivity (including program officers at funding agencies, and departmental evaluation committees). The third lesson is to expect to negotiate many aspects of the research culture. For example, social scientists are not necessarily enthralled with technology that engineers take for granted (e.g. electronic calendars, teleconferencing, document sharing). Legitimate collaboration involves finding mutually agreeable ways of working together, which should include changing some of the engineers’ work practices to adapt to the needs of the social scientists, not just the social scientists adapting to the engineers. The last lesson is to recognize that these disciplines have very different practices in writing style and logic construction that must be negotiated. Engineers are trained to seek simple solutions to complex problems, and prefer elegant and minimalistic explanations. Social scientists, however, recognize that this way of thinking is not entirely appropriate when working with the complexities of human interaction. Social scientists typically seek complex, layered, and textured explanations of social phenomena. The process of writing papers together morphs from the reporting of scientific results in a clear and concise fashion into a shared, negotiated, collaborative construction of synthesized meaning.
The benefits to engineering education research from engineers collaborating with social scientists are well worth the effort required because the process creates deeper and more meaningful explanatory research about the social and cultural aspects of education.

References Cited in Abstract
Borrego, Maura, “Conceptual Difficulties Experienced by Trained Engineers Learning Educational Research Methods”, Journal of Engineering Education, 96.2, (2007): 91-102.
Foor, Cynthia E. ,”Collaborating on a Case Study: Data Analysis”, Annals of Research in Engineering Education, 3.2, (2007). October 15, 2007 .
Foor, Cynthia E., Walden, Susan E., Trytten, Deborah A., “’I Wish that I Belonged More in this Whole Engineering Group’: Achieving Individual Diversity”, Journal of Engineering Education, 96.2, (2007): 103-117.
Walden, Susan E., “How to Function in and with a Collaborative, Multi-disciplinary, Cross-epistemology Research Team”, Annals of Engineering Education, 3.2, (2007). October 15, 2007 .
Trytten, Deborah A., “’I Wish that I Belonged to More in this Whole Engineering Group’: Achieving Individual Diversity, Annals of Research in Engineering Education, 3.2, (2007). October 15, 2007 .

Available from: ASEE Archive

Trytten, D. A., S. E. Walden and C. E. Foor (2008). Social Science Research in Engineering Education: Lessons Learned. Proceedings of 2008 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, PA.

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