- The epistemic practices that make up engineering are poorly understood and there is a lack of empirical research on this topic. Characterizing the epistemic practices of engineering students, faculty, and professionals is critical to creating effective curriculum that aids in developing student’s epistemic practices. Doing so allows us to better answer questions such as what engineers need to know, how to teach them what they need to know, and on a fundamental level, what characterizes engineering practices. In this study, epistemic practices are composed of actions and reasoning and include important features of context that are characteristic of the work each group takes part in.
The purpose of this research is to characterize the epistemic practices and important features of context for engineering students, faculty, and practicing engineers within civil and environmental engineering disciplines. In addition, the epistemic practices are analyzed and compared to features of context to determine if they exhibit context-dependence.
Dialectical semi-structured interviews were conducted with eleven engineers from three key groups: engineering students, faculty, and practicing engineers. These interviews were based around responses to pre-interview prompts that provided stories from the participants’ own experiences as the basis for investigating their epistemic practices and the features of context, both external and internal, that characterize those stories.
What our methods provide is valuable insight into how the actions that engineers take are informed by epistemic practices, and their beliefs and assumptions about knowledge. These insights are highlighted by our ability to conceptualize and discuss differences in how students, faculty, and practicing engineers utilize their knowledge in solving problems. Furthermore, we found that epistemic practices were context-dependent, wherein certain epistemic practices were found to co-occur with distinct features of context and rarely outside of those contexts. These findings are valuable for understanding how each group of engineers utilize epistemic practices such as reducing uncertainty, evaluating variables, and communicate concepts, and do so alongside important contexts, such as their engineering identity. The comparison of these epistemic practices allows us to make recommendations on how to enhance engineering students’ education by providing opportunities to utilize the epistemic practices that practicing engineers use in similar contexts, thereby improving their preparation for entering the workforce after graduation.
Important findings from this work revolve around how student engineers are being prepared for their work as engineers from the point of view of the development of their epistemic practices. Practicing engineers often used epistemic practices that students failed to mention, suggesting that important opportunities exist for creating situations for students to develop and practice those unique ways of thinking and problem solving. As expected, the inclusion of context through the use of participant stories added layers of nuance to their epistemic practices that made comparison between the groups of participants difficult, but more specific and meaningful in new ways.