Engineering capstone projects are intended as a bridge from school to professional practice in which students work in teams to use learned knowledge and skills to complete real-world engineering projects. However, while the majority of time in many undergraduate programs is devoted to development of technical knowledge and skills, there are other important aspects for being an effective team member. This dissertation seeks to characterize more completely the aspects of professional work that manifest in three student teams and one expert team during completion of a complex engineering project.
A microgenetic approach is applied to two studies of engineering teams completing a complex capstone project. The analysis is framed in terms of the conceptual, material, and social aspects of engineering practice. In particular, the discourse is coded in terms of the types of productive interactions that the team members demonstrate as they interact to make progress. The context for the study is the completion of a complex engineering design task where teams are tasked with developing a process “recipe” to release to high volume manufacturing. They collect data using a virtual laboratory which allows opportunity for iteration as they can use data from the experimental runs to gain a better understanding about the process and direct subsequent runs. All meetings of the teams were audio recorded and the transcripts of their interactions form the primary data source for this study.
The first study characterizes, in depth, the interactions of one team at two times during the project. Quantitative analysis of talk time shows that one of the three members talks most for just about every category of productive interaction during the earlier stage. However, during the later stage, the talk becomes more distributed. Discourse analysis of these two stages examines the exertion of influence from each member through different forms of authority. This analysis shows a concurrent shift in the social nature of the team members’ interactions. It is argued that this shift allows the roles of the lower status team members to emerge. Furthermore, the findings suggest possible key features of the complex engineering project which cultivate the more collaborative team dynamics. Results from this study emphasize the importance for both instructors and students to be aware of different ways that are related to the unique competency that each student brings when engaging in a complex engineering project.
In the second study, Epistemic Network Analysis (ENA) is applied to the discourse from three student teams and a team of expert engineers to uncover the entaglement between the three aspects of engineering practice. All teams engage in conceptual, material, and social aspects of practice, but they are connected in different ways. Sample excerpts from each of the teams are provided which illustrate the different ways the conceptual, material, and social aspects of practice can “interlock,” leading to the conjecture that the expert teams use conceptual tools differently than the student teams.