Posts that are engineering edu-ish

Dissertation defense slides and transcript now available (help me find a better way to publish it?)

(Edit: separate image descriptions now added to all slides, erectile in addition to the visual information that’s been embedded in the transcript from the start – thanks to Christian Vogler and Sina Bahram for feedback and ongoing learning on how to make things more accessible to others.)

Slides and a lightly edited transcript of my dissertation defense are now available online in full, approved for those who have been asking.

The slides alone don’t make much sense — but the transcript (in the speaker notes) describes all the images and diagrams, so the transcript alone should actually make sense. The transcript also includes the audience questions, with the audience members anonymized.

I’m struggling a bit on how to publish this online in a reasonable way, and would love feedback/suggestions. But for right now:

  1. You can go straight to the slide deck (look at the speaker notes!) at this google slides link, though I doubt that’s a good long-term hosting solution for this content… so that link may stop working at some point in the future. I also have no idea how this works with screenreaders (edit: but the notes have full image descriptions now.)
  2. You can also download a PDF that has the slides and transcript (edit: and image descriptions), and this is likely the easiest way to read it. However, it’s a format that’s hard to modify, and again — I don’t know how various screenreaders will treat it. (I need to up that portion of my accessibility game.)
  3. Slides are embedded below, and if you click on them, they will open up full-screen. Then you can click on the gear icon in the bottom-left, then “speaker notes” to view the speaker notes — or type ‘s’ as a keyboard shortcut.

Everything is creative-commons licensed (image credits are in the notes) and the deck itself is licensed CC-BY-SA, which means you can share as long as you give credit, and you can remix/use this work as long as you cite it and release your own work under similar conditions. If you honor those conditions, you don’t need to ask me for permission — just go ahead and do it. If you want to use the work under different conditions, contact me.

Curricular principle: being as well as knowing

This is the first post of a series on Olin’s curricular culture principles (draft versions!) which is my attempt to bring transparency into the work I’m doing with Tess Edmonds (‘11) and others. The short backstory is that Olin gets a lot of visitors from other institutions — mostly faculty — who want to learn how to do “what we do.” This requires us to articulate “how we do things around here” — in other words, allergist our curricular culture — to talk about not just the surface-level features of our practice (“students work on teams!”) but the underlying principles that manifest in those surface-level formats. You can find all the posts in this series here.

A note before beginning: I’m writing this for an audience of fellow Oliners, and while I’ve tried to unpack acronyms and terms, I may be missing some. Let me know in the comments if there are things I need to unpack more, and I’ll edit accordingly.

The first principle I’m going to unpack is: learning is about being a practitioner, not just knowing about practice. As Rick Miller has said, Olin students learn to become engineers rather than learning about engineering.

This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. In the engineering education research world, we talk a lot about engineering epistemologies[1], which is the fancy word for “the study of engineering knowledge.” What is engineering knowledge, who decides what this knowledge is, how do we help people obtain it, and so forth? Similarly, when engineering faculty sit down to teach a course, they often talk about what students need to know, what they already know, how to help them acquire this new knowledge; it’s focused on the things students will learn about.

Without this principle, we end up talking a lot about the things students know, but not a lot about the people students are, except perhaps in a diversity-and-inclusion context. Even then, it’s usually in the context of how who they are affects the way they come to know — comments like “well, students from low-income communities tend to come in with less exposure to programming” or “how can we help women become more confident while learning how to use the machine shop?” However, we can’t separate knowledge and being/reality — it’s impossible to know something without there being a reality to know, and without being someone in that reality who can know[2].

This principle of “being as well as knowing” is not well developed throughout most of the engineering education world — including Olin (we don’t always do this perfectly). A lot of engineering educators focus on assessing and developing what students know about engineering. In order to adopt this principle, we also need to pay attention to how students are engineers — what it means for each of them to be their own particular kind of engineer.

To take two Olin faculty members as examples: by “their own particular kind of engineer,” I don’t just mean that Aaron is a MechE and Alisha is a BioE. I also mean that the ways in which Aaron and Alisha are engineers — the ways they embody engineering, the things it means for them specifically to be an engineer — include the things they know about engineering, but also include so much more than that. It’s important that Alisha is deeply invested in the design process and bringing it into non-engineering contexts and spent last semester working at a hospital; it’s important that Aaron has a minimalist aesthetic and works on transforming campus architecture and likes bikes. They know about things, and they also are many things (designers, bikers, people interested in medical work, etc). When Olin practices this principle well, it acknowledges and values these aspects of being (and more), and values how these aspects of being are expressed and developed — and crucially, sees this development and expression as part of engineering, not something separate from it.

This sentiment of also valuing the being of a person as an engineer similarly extends to the context of course design. Here, this looks like Olin faculty talking about what students should know, but also aspects of being they want students to have. For instance, QEA (Quantitative Engineering Analysis) faculty talk about how they want students to be engineers who enjoy doing quantitative analysis — which is related to, but separate from, their knowledge of quantitative techniques and their ability to apply them.

This aspect of Olin’s curricular culture affects the ways Olin community members work to help each other and ourselves grow as individuals[3]. Whether we’re students, faculty, staff, or alumni, we don’t just focus on developing what Oliners know; we focus on developing who they are.

Remember, these principles are drafts — I’m putting them out here for more commentary, feedback, etc. I’d love stories from Oliners (and non-Oliners) about their Olin experiences and how they do/don’t match this principle, and how this resonates with you, and especially how it does not (because that’s how I’ll learn to edit it). Post in the comments or contact me via whatever other means you have, and we’ll talk. And stay tuned for the next post, which I think will probably be on attention ownership (we’ll see!)

[1] Engineering epistemology (what engineering knowledge is and what it means to know about engineering) is one of the 5 key areas of engineering education research set forth in the 2006 paper that is still used to classify a lot of work in the field — see National Engineering Education Research Colloquies. (2006). The Research Agenda for the New Discipline of Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(4), 259–261. There is no mention of engineering ontology (or what it means to be an engineer) in that document, or in later iterations of an engineering education research taxonomy (current version at I’m… working on that.

[2] The philosophical terminology for this is ontology (the study of being/reality) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Engineering education has a well-developed practice of talking about epistemology, but we are not used to discussing ontology. (Reality is just… real, right? And things just are. What’s there to talk about? Turns out there’s a lot.)

[3] The phenomenon of other fields looking at the ontologies of their disciplines and education practices is very recent, and is known as the “ontological turn” that is sweeping across the disciplines. Engineering education hasn’t quite entered it yet, but part of my work is attempting to bring it there. For an example of the ontological turn from medical education, see Dall’Alba, G. (2009). Learning to be professionals. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.

Thoughts on Matthew Guterl’s piece on “surviving graduate school”

Via Steph Daza: a post by Matthew Pratt Guterl on surviving graduate school. Here are some parts that stood out to me.

From #8: Search for something that appeals to you and that connects with bigger issues. So choose wisely and be excited. This echoes Ruth Streveler’s advice: “The shiny thing can definitely detract from productivity. So I’ve tried to learn how to find the shiniest thing, online and really get clear about what the shiniest thing is, discount and let myself ignore the less shiny.”

13. Learn how to craft and control the narrative of your career, from the presentation of your CV to web pages to wardrobes to public performances. This means learning how to distinguish between the truly impressive and the superficial. I still struggle to do this; the narratives I’m trying to write feel so strange in so many ways that they’re often seen (including by myself!) as fundamentally incompatible ones. But hrgh, it’s… possible…

18. Know this: there is really only one question at job talks and conferences and grad student get-togethers: “Your work is interesting. How does it relate to mine?” So do your homework. Know what people care about. I miss these gatherings; I miss professional socialization; I feel like I’ve been in a hole under a bucket for the last few years (probably a massive overexaggeration, but…) and that I desperately want to work on excellent teams again.

20. People will treat you like crap all the time. They will ignore you, or try to hurt you, or even try to ruin you. If what they are doing is illegal, don’t be silent. Do what must be done. If what they are doing is merely cruel, just remember, and don’t be that person. And mobilize for a better world. Basically. I will say that it is hard — I don’t know about “harder” because this is the only experience I’ve lived — but it is hard to be at the intersection of a bunch of marginalizations; if one thing isn’t slapping you in the face, another thing is, and I cherish the spaces where I can exhale and feel safe being myself. It’s one of the reasons I want to build sanctuaries for others wherever I go.

23. Learn how to tell the difference between those faculty who will help you get things within the context of your department/your university, and those faculty who will help you do the same thing while also teaching you how to get these things on your own. Still need to learn this. Since I literally don’t overhear things, accidental learning in my field only exists for me in text formats (which largely means it doesn’t exist). I have to be very, very deliberate about seeking to learn academic-cultural things I don’t yet know that I don’t know.

And finally, I appreciate the last point from… a number of different perspectives.

30. Finally, write your own list. Don’t just copy this down. Edit it. Disagree with it. Improve it. Print it up. Put it on the fridge. Argue about it. The point of any such list isn’t to give you a pathway; it is to help you find your own.

On writing: a glove that fits

It’s been a long time since I simply wrote here — just wrote out thoughts, remedy without more formal content to share, or having this be a draft of something else I was officially working on, or something of that sort. I used to need to write here as an outlet, a place where the thoughts inside me could erupt into the world, unsure of what I was becoming. I wanted a place to mark things down, to leave a trace.

I’m not sure that I need that any more — clearly, as the last year and a half (or two? it’s been a while) have shown, I can live (and live well!) without it; continue to learn and grow and meet people and do hard things and fall down and make mistakes and keep becoming more and more a Mel with every day, discovering what that means. But there are times where writing like this is a valuable exercise in and of itself; it fights my tendency towards perfectionism, makes me put something down with the full knowledge that my older self will read this someday and hear my inexperience, and… that’s okay.

I’m a better person when I write. I don’t know why this is, other than it’s probably the way that I was made. Some people were made to draw, and some to dance, and some to play music, and some to do math, and I was made to do those things as well and find deep joy in them. But writing also draws me back, and words, and language, and how I can type them out so fluently sometimes that I don’t recognize where eloquence is birthed from. Because some of these thoughts must be beyond me, and yet there they are, glinting softly in the rumpled folds of awkward sentences I recognize as much more mine. Surely my thoughts and words must be all smudgy charcoal and feet falling over themselves, so where do these tiny flights come from, peeping once, twice, and then — small soft feathered bodies zipping away as the folds of my inarticulate dust roll off them? Someone has breathed a life into my dust.

That’s probably why it’s been so hard, the past few years. Writing has never been hard for me before; words have always been my friends, sometimes my only ones. I’ve never really grappled with things on a printed page; they’ve always been smooth draughts amidst a world of blurry lips and muffled bassy sounds. I could drink them in and pour them out; even my undergrad humanities thesis, even my early grad school papers, they pulled at the familiar feeling inside my mind of thoughts crystallizing into a whole as they poured out into my hands and into type.

I never really edited, except maybe for minor typos once in a while, or a sentence or two out of place. Never rewrote. Never outlined, never structured. Never had to do more than lay out all of the books in front of me, in larger and larger piles and rings as I progressed from high school into college into the PhD — lay them all out in front of me, and then start writing. It was a vast landscape of thought before me that I could easily fly across, dip into, pull threads into the form I was weaving. And yes, sometimes that was hard, but it was always just hard in the moment, and I could make it work — I could always make written English work. And maybe sometimes what came out wasn’t particularly gorgeous — as I went farther in my studies, it became increasingly cobbled-together, as my writing spilled beyond the ways that I could naturally structure it and signpost it for others. But it was good enough; it held, my patching held, I never had to learn to sew.

Text was my home, my first language, my primary way to think and be and show my skills and my potential. And so I was completely unprepared when I started to run off the frayed edges of where my natural talent could take me. My raw ability had unspooled so, so much further beyond the other people I had seen, peeling off to gasp along the wayside when the text outpaced them; floods of reading, floods of writing, larger and larger structures that they needed tools to grasp.

And I took a certain sort of pride in running down that road barefoot and untrained, grasping at things with open hands and swinging through thickets of meaning like I was born to it. Because this was the jungle that had raised me; with so much of the human world around me closed to me without a fight, I learned to think from books, how to express myself from books, how to piece together dialogues from writers who spoke back and forth of one another through the years.

So it felt like betrayal when I stumbled, felt like words had turned against me; felt like I was cast out of my home, stripped of one of my greatest talents. I hadn’t been, of course. I could reach just as far as before, but now I was reaching for things that were farther. And I couldn’t get to them without unwinding, backing up, trying to figure out how I had done things I had never thought about. Learning the sorts of things most people learn in grade school. How to outline. What arguments were, how to structure them. How to revise and how to edit; how to accept a first draft being far from final, how to aim towards done. How to read — something I never thought I’d need to think about. How to read.

It’s like relearning your first language. Which, for me, it literally was. And is. I’m still learning, and I still miss that untrained innocence of sorts that I kept for a long, long time. But in the end, it’s a decision about the value and the choice of craft, and whether I love to write more than I love the writing being easy, and deciding that day after day.

There is a part I love, right at the end of The Amber Spyglass, where the heroine Lyra realizes that her natural childhood gift of reading the alethiometer (a device for revealing truth) has vanished. Previously, she had reveled in being able to easily wield a skill that highly trained adults struggled with, but now she has become one of those adults — with no training, since she had ridden entirely on her natural gifts so far. And now she has a choice of what to do.

“Why – ” Lyra began, and found her voice weak and trembling – ”why can’t I read the alethiometer anymore? Why can’t I even do that? That was the one thing I could do really well, and it’s just not there anymore – it just vanished as if it had never come…”

“You read it by grace,” said Xaphania, looking at her, “and you can regain it by work.”

“How long will that take?”

“A lifetime.”

“That long…”

“But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”

“You mean a full lifetime, don’t you?” Lyra whispered. “A whole long life? Not… not just… a few years…”

“Yes, I do,” said the angel.

So do you spurn a lifetime of hard work because it should be natural, like it had been when you were younger, and walk away from a craft you now need to earn with sweat and blood like everybody else? Or do you ride the remnants of that childhood gift forever, only doing easy things — things that you know are probably hard for a lot of other people, but which aren’t the things you could achieve if you decided to stretch out of your plateau?

Or do you decide the craft is greater than the cost, and that slow progress that you cannot see is worth the journey, and that you love the doing of the work more than the rewards that seem to shimmer at the end, and do you pick it up and read the primers over and over again, and falter through the basics you wish you could just dismiss, and keep going even though you leave hard trails of imperfection in your wake, and don’t know where you’re going, and often feel alone?

A few years ago, when the threads of my base talent were starting to unravel beyond their limits, I complained to my classmate Julia and our department head, Dr. Radcliffe, that it felt like reaching through a thick rubber wall; the harder I pushed, the more it pushed back, so why keep trying to grasp what lay on the other side? What would I gain from it?

And Julia answered something like this, although I am rephrasing it a lot: you keep pushing to stretch the rubber wall farther out to get to where you want to go. You complain that none — or very little — of the academic writing that you see is in a voice that you can accept as someday being yours; you say that scholarship is something that doesn’t fit you, and that you can’t pretend to put on something that doesn’t fit just for the sake of getting through. And that’s all right. But here is what you’re doing — you’re stretching the wall until it flexes to fit you. It becomes a glove that fits. And then you’ll have a voice that is both yours and a scholar’s, because you’ll be a scholar.

I want a glove that fits more than I want work that is easy.

And so I will wake up in the mornings and continue to write and learn to be a scholar, even if it is hard.

Comic: Products and Practitioners: how a visibility of developmental processes aids in practitioner formation

The one-page comic below was created as a quick reference for faculty and students at Olin College, doctor where learners can see the development of both products and processes in the domain they are learning in (whether that’s engineering, education, or something else).

The text after the comic is also in the Scribd document description and functions as an accessible image description of the one-page comic.

Products and Processes: how a visibility of developmental processes aids in practitioner formation by Mel Chua on Scribd

Another theory comic: image description follows. (Heavily influenced by Community of Practice, Situated Cognition, and Cognitive Apprenticeship theories.)

Text at the top of the page: When learners are engaged in an authentic, situated, & communal practice context, they see the development of two kinds of things over and over again in their environment:

Title text: Products & Practitioners (of their practice).

The middle of the page is divided into two columns. The left column is under the portion of the title that says “Products,” and shows three people getting clay from a big lump labeled “raw materials.” Below that, the same three people are shown starting to form pots from the clay; one person drops their pot and cries “oh, no!” Below that, the same three people are shown continuing to work on their pots; the middle person is now saying “oh, cool!” as they piece the pottery shards back together, and one of the other potters looks at them and thinks “I see how you adapted that!” Below that are drawings of the three final pots, all different; one is a squat, short pot with squiggly decorations, another is the broken pot pieced artistically back together, and the third is a tall vase made out of coils. All together, the left column shows the development process of a variety of pottery “products” from start to finish.

The right column is under the portion of the title that says “practitioners.” At the top is a group of three small children labeled “novices,” in the middle is a group of three teens labeled “juniors,” and at the bottom is a group of three adults labeled “masters.” The novices are making small simple pots; one cries out “my first pot!” while raising their fist in excitement. One teen is looking at the excited small child and thinking “I remember that time.” Another teen is being gazed at by a small child thinking “someday, I’m going to do that,” and is in turn looking at an adult practitioner and thinking the same thing. One of the teens has made a mistake on their pot; an adult is watching them and saying “I remember that time.” All together, the right column shows the developmental spectrum of potters from novice to master, with younger practitioners looking towards the older ones in anticipation of what they will do, and older ones looking back at the younger ones in remembrance of where they once were.

Below these two images is text that reads: one thing seeing these developmental cycles constantly reinforces is the sheer diversity of ways to engage with the profession/practice and the world. Each product and practitioner is fashioned from a different mold. The question becomes not “how do I fit the norm,” but rather…

“What might I make?” and “Who might I become?” (in a thought bubble coming from a person at the bottom center, head cradled thoughtfully in hands, with a variety of ceramic pieces surrounding them at either side)

At the bottom of the page is the copyright/authorship notice: Copyright 2016 CC-BY-SA Mel Chua.

Comic: 7 Techniques Adapted From Cognitive Apprenticeship Theory

The one-page comic below was created as a quick reference for faculty and students at Olin College, viagra order where students and faculty frequently have spontaneous, pancreatitis complex learning interactions in seemingly chaotic studio/project environments. Cognitive apprenticeship theory provides one of many ways to make sense of the sorts of implicitly taught and culturally engrained deep teaching and learning skills that might otherwise be lost in overwhelming chaos.

The text after the comic is also in the Scribd document description and functions as an accessible image description of the one-page comic.

7 Techniques Adapted From Cognitive Apprenticeship: “Making Thinking Visible” in spontaneous, complex learn… by Mel Chua on Scribd

Header: Cognitive Apprenticeship – 7 techniques for making thinking visible (studio version)

This comic is a one-page visual description of 5 Cognitive Apprenticeship techniques developed in the 80′s by Collins, Brown, Newman, and Duguid, plus two additions adapted by the author for adult learners (denoted with an *).

The techniques are:


  • scaffolding (faculty directs attention — a faculty member frames part of a complex problem, asking a student to “please focus your work here first”)
  • bounding* (student directs attention — a student frames part of a complex problem, asking a faculty member to “please focus your feedback here first”)
  • modeling (faculty does, faculty explains — a faculty member works with a complex problem, explaining what “I am trying to…” do)
  • coaching (student does, faculty explains — a student works with a complex problem while a faculty member coaches them on what “you might try to…” do)
  • narrating* (faculty does, student explains — a faculty member works with a complex problem while a student explains what they think “you are trying to…” do)
  • articulating (student does, student explains — a student works with a complex problem, explaining what “I am trying to…” do)
  • reflecting (comparing faculty/expert practice with student/novice practice)


These seven techniques are displayed in a thought bubble being pondered by a cartoon character who has lifted off the top of their head, pointing to the gears turning inside; this is a metaphor for “making thinking visible.”

Beside that character are two ways the 7 techniques can be used:

  • used to describe spontaneous, complex learning interactions (a faculty and student interacting over a complex problem, their illegible speech bubbles overwritten by a label saying “what is happening here? Bounding.”) A note at the bottom says that the technique “switches rapidly every 1-2 sentences.”
  • used to request spontaneous, complex learning interactions (a faculty and student interacting over a complex problem; the student says “could you please Model this for me?” and the faculty replies “sure!”)

The text at bottom left (cut off by the scan): *denotes new code adapted for adult learners. Comic CC-BY-SA Mel Chua 2016.

Postmodernism for engineers: the (draft) collection

I’m having some pretty big affective-intellectual anxiety right now around (re)writing the theoretical chapter of my dissertation, pills which tries to explain postmodernism to an engineering audience. Which is a big scary translation, sale in my eyes — I feel like I’m a postmodernism novice who’s blindly babbling about this (not true, but… impostor syndrome!)
So I split it into short essays targeted at specific topics. It was supposed to be around 10 pages; it’s actually around 25. (Oops. Turns out I know more about this than I thought.) If you’re (1) a technical-ish person interested in seeing whether my explanations of postmodern concepts work for you, or (2) someone familiar with what postmodernism is (at a really basic level) and would tell me if you think I’m translating the ideas accurately, I would LOVE writing feedback.
You can read and comment on individual sections in the posts listed below, or read the full version on Google Docs (and comment there)  – feel free to comment! Edits will be made to this version, so don’t be surprised if it is slightly different (and hopefully better) than the blog post sectionings listed below. Thanks to Mark Hoemmen, Suzanne Loughry Nellis, Julia Thompson, and Todd Fernandez for some awesome feedback thus far.
The blog posts in this series include:
  1. What’s postmodernism (and how do I explain it to engineers)?
  2. Okay, fine, you can’t define postmodernism, so I’ll provide a history of how it came to be. (Followed immediately by section 2.5, or: by the way, a postmodernist reading of the historical I just provided basically demands that I go “but that narrative isn’t a single clear explanation either!”
  3. Comparison with other (probably more familiar) paradigms, including positivism aka “this is probably what you think science is.”
  4. Parts 4-6 present some key ideas in postmodern thought, and how they relate to ideas familiar to engineers. The first one is power and agency (otherwise known as commit access)
  5. Then there’s truth and meaning… (otherwise known as design reviews)
  6. …and finally slicing and separations (otherwise known as black-boxing)
  7. Bringing it home: postmodernism as a language to describe aspects of engineering practice
  8. Finally, looking at educational studies as a place where the “postmodern turn” has already happened, and what engineering might learn from that.

Ignore my (horrible and inconsistent) citation practices. And yes, there are obvious “I wanted to keep writing so I stuck NOTES IN ALL CAPS HERE and moved on” markers. Look, I’m just… trying to… get this out, ok? It’s taken me… a couple years, and I finally wrote all this in about 2 days.

Postmodernism: paradigmatic comparison

I’m just going to keep posting these until they are all done. I’ve lost the ability to write useful annotations at the start. See previous posts, glands or something.

Since I am presenting postmodernism here as a qualitative research paradigm to be incorporated into engineering education practice, visit this I will compare it to the philosophies and practices already present in the field as they appear in several qualitative research paradigms previously discussed within it. Glesne’s introductory book on qualitative research defines a paradigm as “a framework or philosophy of science that makes assumptions about the nature of reality and truth, the kinds of questions to explore, and how to go about doing so” (2011, p. 5). These assumptions affect our research, as “research approaches inherently reflect our beliefs about the world we live in and want to live in” (Lather, 1991, p. 5). Becker (2001) describes qualitative research fields as being protective and self-preservational about their own boundaries, as human communities are wont to do. After all, one needs a way to distinguish who and what belongs within a group and who and what does not, and how to determine which things within the field’s accepted boundaries are “best.” Paradigms provide a way to legitimize and privilege work that shares a field’s assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge.

Koro-Ljungberg and Douglas’s JEE meta-review of qualitative research in engineering education synthesizes four perspectives (2008, p. 165) that align with the paradigmatic breakdowns given by Glesne in her research methodology textbook (2011, p. 7) and Lather’s now-classic paper on postmodern research “paradigm talk” (2006, p. 38-40). In the table below, if paradigm names vary between sources, I use the first names listed by Koro-Ljungberg and Douglas, with selected alternate names given in parentheses afterwards in the extended explanations. Following the table, I discuss each paradigm more extensively in turn.

Table 1: Qualitative paradigms in engineering education research





View of reality

Single objective reality, objective and falsifiable

Multiple subjective, constructed realities

Multiple subjective political realities constructed on the basis of power

Multiple, fragmented, unknowable

View of truth

Truth is one

Truth is many

Truth is many and constitutes a system of socio-political power

Contains the signs of its own contradiction

Purpose of research

Prediction, cause and effect

Describe and understand

Emancipate, socio-political critique

Deconstruct “grand narratives”

Methods of research

Defined in advance, hypothesis driven, ex: experimental or quasi-experimental, causal comparative

Preliminarily defined in advance, emergently adjusted during the study, ex: grounded theory, ethnography

Designed to capture inequities, ex: participatory action, critical discourse analysis

Generated during the study, “theory as methodology,” ex: deconstruction, geneaology, rhizoanalysis

Role of researcher




various changing roles

Outcome of research

Context-free generalization

Situated description

Critical essays, policy changes

Re-conceptualized descriptions

Positivism (postpositivism, logical empiricism) is the paradigm used by mainstream scientific research, according to Popper’s (1959) definition of science as the usage of empirical falsification. The positivist paradigm assumes a pre-existing and objectively knowable reality (Lather, 2006). Consequently, using a postmodern paradigm, inquiries as to the truthful nature of this reality can be conducted by formulating and testing falsifiable hypotheses via experimental procedures defined in advance of their execution. Knowledge produced by this style of research builds linearly upon itself until researchers know how the world works (Glesne, 2011), or in the case of postpositivism, until they approach as close as possible. The purpose of research is to determine cause and effect (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008) and predict future results (Glesne, 2011) since experiments for testing falsifiable hypotheses should be repeatable. Researchers are therefore interchangeable components who serve as neutral, detached observers. Furthermore, research outcomes are expected to be generalizable across contexts (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008); under such a paradigm, transferable knowledge is privileged.

Lather (2006) playfully compares positivism to classical ballet, with its rule-driven precision. Since engineering training includes a great deal of science background, the positivist paradigms are commonplace among engineers. Indeed, they are so commonplace that sometimes they are assumed to be te only paradigms available. Such assumptions can cause conceptual difficulties for engineering researchers transitioning towards education research and suddenly encountering the existence of other paradigms of research (Borrego, 2007).

Interpretivism (constructivism, phenomenology) is a research paradigm frequently used in the social sciences such as anthropology and sociology. From an interpretivist point of view, reality is subjective and constructed (Lather, 2006) and therefore leads to multiple truths. The focus turns away from prediction of an absolute reality and towards understanding of a co-constructed one (Glesne, 2011), with researchers and participants acting as partners in creating that understanding. The result is often thick description, situated in a contextually-dependent environment (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008); it is no longer required to be generalizable and transferable in order to count as valid knowledge.

Many methodologies and theories fall under the umbrella of interpretivism, including constructivism, constructionism, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, and narrative analysis, to name a few. Lather’s analogy for interpretivism is a community picnic, with its dynamics of humanistic cooperation amongst parties (2006). Qualitative research projects in engineering education often employ an interpretivist paradigm, for example when examining case studies and stories from underrepresented groups or describing the engineering cultures of indigenous groups.

The critical approach shares interpretivism’s assumptions about the social construction of reality, then adds an emphasis on the sociopolitical power relations of those constructs (Lather, 2006). These power structures create oppression; therefore, the goal of research is to liberate (Glesne, 2011). By capturing and proclaiming inequities and injustices, researchers and participants become activists who can affect policy change (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008) Projects employing critical paradigms are also often associated with a focus on marginalized groups (Lather, 2006). Within engineering education research, a good deal of work using the critical paradigm focuses on aspects of diversity: gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc., and the power dynamics that lead to under-representation from particular demographics within the engineering field. Feminist theory, critical theory, and critical discourse analysis are examples of theories that might be employed within this paradigm (Glesne, 2011).

The critical perspective “springs from an assumption that we live amid a world of pain, that much can be done to alleviate that pain, and that theory has a crucial role to play in that process” (Marc Poster, Critical Theory and Postructuralism: In search of a context. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1989, p. 3). Consequently, projects within the critical paradigm move beyond understanding to demand action. Their research outputs move beyond disseminating knowlege to an academic elite and often frequently aim towards positive impacts on the research participants and their communities. This might take the form of political initiatives, the design and manufacture of products, performance art, or other action-oriented approaches.

Finally, postmodernism (deconstruction, poststructural, postcolonial, and the other “posts”) both draws from and works against each of the other perspectives. Like positivists, postmodernists acknowledge the utility of prediction and control, but question how they are pursued and the ends to which they are used, and whether such pursuits, dependent on the assumption of an impossible level of objectivity, can ever ultimately be successful. Like interpretivists, postmodernists acknowledge the social construction of reality and the unique positionality contributed by researchers and participants; unlike many interpretivists, postmodernists do not seek a convergence, stabilization, or taxonomical ordering of this constructed understanding. Like critical inquiry, postmodern inquiry is concerned with power, but “instead of having the critical theorists’ goal of eliminating the oppressive acts of society, postmodernists seek to delineate the multivocal relations of power that exist in order to understand differences” (Tierney and Bensimon, 1996, p. 15).

As previous sections of this chapter have described, the postmodernist emphasis is on play and disruption of assumptions made within a variety of paradigms. Instead of settling within one paradigm, postmodernism proliferates paradigms. In a sense, a postmodern paradigm creates, uses, and attempts to shift between multiple paradigms; in the case of this project, the primary shift is between interpretivist and postmodernist paradigms. Shifts between paradigms disrupt existing ways of thinking and dominance relationships, and provide opportunities for Lather’s (2006) analogy of the postmodernist paradigm is of a carnival; there is no single reference point, and reality is ultimately unknowable and self-contradictory. Inasmuch as it can be said to have a particular goal, postmodern projects aim towards reconceptualizations of phenomena (Koro-Ljungberg & Douglas, 2008), or to borrow a title from one of Lather’s (2008) papers, to work with, within, and against the world so that it may “appear other to itself anew.”

Postmodernism: what engineering education might learn from the “postmodern turn” in educational studies

Drawing on the idea I brought forth in the previous section, discount that postmodernism can provide a theoretical language for describing some aspects of engineering and engineering education practice, skincare a logical next question might be: what might it look like for that to happen? To conceptualize what a “postmodern turn” might look like in engineering education, recipe I turn to a place where it has already occurred. Specifically, I look at the collection of disciplines termed “educational studies,” where the “postmodern turn” in educational research has matured over roughly the past 25 years.

As befits a practice that draws heavily on postmodernism as both theory and methodology, there is no clean and unified history of educational studies, nor a single unified group that can be said to represent the entire trans-disciplinary phenomenon. However, the Society for Educational Studies (SES) was established in 1951 and largely based in the United Kingdom, publishing The British Journal of Educational Studies as one of its activities (SES, 2016). 17 years later, the American Educational Studies Association (AESA) was established in 1968 with a companion journal called Educational Studies (AESA, 2016).

Educational studies is a broad term for a loosely conglomerated, trans-disciplinary movement that looks at education through the lens of various fields, typically fields in the liberal arts; the American Educational Studies Association describes its members as “utilizing one or more of the liberal arts disciplines of philosophy, history, politics, sociology, anthropology, or economics as well as comparative/international and cultural studies” (AESA, 2016). Educational studies practitioners might describe themselves as studying the “XX of education,” meaning “taking an XX perspective on education,” where XX is one of multiple arts, humanities, or social sciences disciplines: the philosophy of education, the sociology of education, and so forth — and education is the site of study.

Just as engineering education graduate programs are not primarily focused on producing engineering instructors, educational studies graduate programs are not the same as teacher preparation programs. Although educational studies activities have strong ties to teaching practice and many educational studies scholars have experience with classroom teaching, educational studies includes both research and policy arenas and focuses on the broad sociocultural contexts of education.

To draw from a few selected program descriptions in educational studies: Tufts describes its program as “explor[ing] education as a site of critical scholarly analysis through the disciplinary strands of the field, including: history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy… engag[ing] these topics through critical theoretical frames such as feminist theories, queer theories, Critical Race Theory, post-colonial theories, and socio-cultural theories” (Tufts, 2016). Yale’s program “promotes a multidisciplinary understanding of the role of education historically, socially, politically, and economically” (Yale, 2016). Brandeis educational studies students “explore educational history and policy, human learning and development, and the place of education and schooling in families and societies, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives… to examine the impact of political, historical, psychological, cultural, economic, and social forces on education…” and provides examples of the sorts of questions its students ask: “Who decides what should be taught?  What kinds of learning, schools, and teachers do young people deserve?  Why is there so much disagreement about the purposes of schools?” (Brandeis, 2016)

In contrast to an educational studies approach that brings liberal arts disciplines to bear on education as a rich site of study, engineering education research uses the engineering discipline itself as the rich site of study, and brings tools from other disciplines to bear on that. As such, engineering education can be said to belong to discipline-based education research, which works within the bounds of a discipline to understand and progress the ways in which that discipline forms its practitioners. (In postmodernist terms, engineering education research works “with, within, and against” current engineering education practice.) Other examples of discipline-based educational research include other STEM fields, such as math education, chemistry education, and physics education. Engineering education research also bears similarities to other professional education programs such as medical or legal education. In other words, while educational studies takes “an XX perspective on education,” where XX is typically a liberal arts discipline, engineering education belongs to the group of disciplines that focus on “the education of YY practitioners,” where YY is typically a STEM or professional field. This is, of course, an oversimplication with many ways to create exceptions and intersections, but such a distinction provides additional context for understanding educational studies and its practice in relation to engineering education research.

So what might educational studies teach us about how it looks when a field goes through the “postmodern turn”? One insight from the history of educational studies is that ideas take time to travel across cultures, languages, and contexts — and that the latency inherent in a hermeneutic and material world shaped the way ideas proliferated across disciplines within it. When Elizabeth St. Pierre, now a professor at the University of Georgia and an influential postmodernist/feminist theorizer in educational studies, began graduate school in 1991, Foucault and other French poststructural philosophers were just beginning to be translated into English for the first time. As she recounts it, due to the language barrier, “not many educators or educational researchers in the U.S. used poststructural theories at that time; and some academics, without reading that literature closely, accused the “posts” of being relativistic, nihilistic, deliberately obfuscatory and then just dismissed them” (St. Pierre, 2014, p. 5).

Although French philosophers had laid the groundwork for postmodernist philosophy as early as the 60′s, these works took time to become available to an English-speaking audience. To list a few notable examples of “classic” pieces in postmodernist philosophy: Derrida’s “De la grammatologie” was published in French in 1967 and translated into English as “Of Grammatology” 11 years later in 1976. Foucault’s lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” was given in 1969, but was not translated into English as “What is an author?” until 1984. Similarly, Lyotard’s “La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir” was written in French in 1979 and translated into English as “The Postmodern Condition” in 1984.

St. Pierre began her graduate studies in 1991 under Patti Lather, who had just published “Getting smart: feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern,” one of the first works to engage the newly-translated postmodern philosophies in the context of education. The term “postmodern” was not consistently being applied to works of that time that employed resonant philosophies. For example, Deborah Britzman’s “Practice Makes Practice,” a study of student teachers also published in 1991, mentions the (then) present-day “cultural shift” in educational studies (p. 16-17) and practically copies Lyotard’s reluctant definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” by proposing “an interest in conflicts and contradictions, no ‘grand remedies’ here” (p. 11). However, instead of “postmodern,” Britzman describes her work as “critical.” Two years later, William Tierney coined the term “critical postmodernism” to describe his study of difference in higher education (Tierney, 1993).

Of her experience as a student formed in this sort of methodological ferment, St. Pierre writes: “In 1991, qualitative methodology had just been invented and was still considered radical. Even early descriptions of the new methodology drew on conflicting humanist knowledge projects: interpretive, critical, and positivist approaches in the social sciences… the critical turn and the social justice projects of feminists, race scholars, gay and lesbian scholars, and others who demanded action and not just interpretation” (2014. p. 5-6). In parallel, engineering education was taking advantage of similar radical ferments in its own arena and beginning to come of age as a discipline its own right, for example with the re-launch of the Journal of Engineering Education (JEE) in 1993.

Another lesson to be learned from the “postmodern turn” in educational studies is that the introduction of a new paradigm is neither neat nor complete. Paradigm shifts — or rather, the layering of new paradigms over and alongside preexisting ones — trickle into a field over time, such that multiple paradigms remain at play during the same timespan. In the educational studies space, “The School as a Work Environment: Implications for Reform,” a collection of education studies published in 1991, provides a useful comparison to “non-postmodern” educational research outside of engineering/STEM education, at the time and disciplinary place where St. Pierre was beginning to experience the “postmodern turn” in educational studies for herself.

To take one example chapter, “Creating a teacher work environment for the development of classroom knowledge,” moves briskly through a “general description of the structures and processes observed in Ms. Dove’s class… allow[ing] the reader to move quickly into the daily life of the classroom teacher and her students, and provides an analysis of the typical activities, routines, and actions the teacher used to solve the problem of order…” (Carter, 1991, p. 47). Carter then paints a straightforward picture of the classroom, then jumps on p. 57 into five general principles of classroom management. Absent is a reflection on contradictions, tensions, exceptions, or acknowledgements that the narrative of Ms. Dove’s classroom might not be quite as simple as presented in a few brief pages.

However, the cracks were beginning to show. In 1994, F. Michael Connelly penned a foreword to the book “Teachers’ stories: from personal narrative to professional insight,” which was published the following year. Connelly described an education research world where “not only have there been shifts in the frames of reference for inquiry, there have been shifts from the researchers’ experience to the voice of those in the experience,” naming the book as a work that “elegantly marks the crumbling boundary lines between researcher and researched” and positioning it “within a ferment of ideas on inquiry in the social sciences, adding phenomenological, interpretive, and humanistic methods to the “look and record” descriptive research traditions,” while adding that “not many years ago, it might have been seen as teacher gossip, stories better left for the staffroom.” Connelly’s description of the book, which he also describes as “a harbinger” that “challenges sacred notions of the preeminence of theory over practice,” echoes with the language of postmodernism: ferments, crumbling boundaries, and the challenging of previously sacred notions (Jalongo et al, 1995, p. xii).

By 1998, Ohio State had formally approved its program in “Cultural Studies in Education” after a protracted struggle for legitimacy described by Lather in her 2006 paper, “The Foundations/ Cultural Studies Nexus: An Emerging Movement in the Education Field.” The legitimizing shelter of formal programs at Ohio State and other universities parallels the increasing legimization of engineering education as a research field a few years later. For instance, the National Academy of Engineering formed its Committee on Engineering Education (CEE) in 1999, and the first PhD program in the field was established at Purdue University in 2004. In both cases, the establishment of a practice’s legitimacy — postmodern research techniques in educational studies, and “rigorous” research at all in engineering education — created room for more research of that sort to be done without having to constantly defend its own right to exist.

As engineering education was defending and establishing its right to exist as a practice, so was postmodern theory and methodology within educational studies. 20 years after its introduction, the “postmodern turn” is embedded within educational studies as a viable research paradigm, and engineering education is accepted as a legitimate research discipline, with multiple degree-granting programs and its first few rounds of tenured faculty. Having established themselves, engineering education and the postmodern practices within educational studies now have a much easier opportunity to bridge the gap between them, which can be described as “living in a time warp” (St. Pierre, 2014, p. 2) and reaching across to a field that is simultaneously “paradigms behind” as well as ahead (Patton, 2008, p. 269) — engineering education as a place where postmodern paradigms are lived out, and educational studies as a place where it is theorized and incorporated into research practice.

Postmodernism: a troubling of the historical narrative I just provided for postmodernism

The narrative I have just told about postmodernist history in relation to modernist and premodernist thought is, store as all narratives are, geriatrician a partial and extremely cleaned-up telling of a much messier reality. I told it as a narrative of three separate philosophical paradigms that occurred in chronological order and with causal relationships. However, I can simultaneously say that everything happened everywhere and all at once. As one simple example, postmodern thought appeared during what I have described as premodern times, as in the earlier example of using the Tao Te Ching to illustrate postmodernism. Further, as I will discuss shortly, modernist (and premodernist) views of the world are prominent in contemporary US engineering culture and its emphasis on optimization and improvement.

These inevitable oversimplifications in explanation are inescapable; they are a feature of language itself. Lather points out that “language is delineation, a strategic limitation of possible meanings. It frames; it brings into focus by that that which goes unremarked” (Lather, 1991, p. xix). The narrative I have just provided about postmodernism is one possible narrative among many, and it is one that provides traction towards engaging with this project on postmodern terms rather than more modernist philosophical assumptions that might otherwise be brought to bear by default. For instance, it is important to not simply conceptualize postmodernism as “a better and more recent form of modernism,” because the emphasis on constant improvements over time comes from a modernist rather than a postmodernist perspective.

This insight — that postmodernism was not “more optimized modernism” — was one that I personally struggled with in my early encounters with postmodernism as a student previously trained in the high-context expectations of engineering. After dutifully writing down postmodernist thought as a neat historical progression (similar to the one I wrote above), I realized that the portrayal itself was misaligned with the philosophy — that such a neat history was a hypocritical and modernist/structuralist portrayal of postmodernism, and that I didn’t know how to escape it. “Even the name ‘postmodernism’ suggests a progression from modernism,” I blogged in a frantic attempt to reconcile my knowledge into a single self-consistent system (Chua, 2013). When I took my complaints to Dr. Lather, she nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “Sit in the paradox, Mel” (Lather, 2013). Postmodern thinking is full of an intentional search and embrace of tension and paradox, much like the tradition of Zen koans; the intent is to shake readers out of their habitual ways of thinking, being, and making-sense.

A practice of tension and paradox means that postmodernism can never stand alone as a “pure” form of thought and an “untainted” philosophy that is separate from modernism. After all, a postmodernist perspective would interrogate the ideas of “purity” and “untaintedness” by saying such a thing is actually impossible, and that this impossibility is perhaps not even problematic. Postmodernism is not a clean break from the past; it is is a troubling and questioning and playful interrogation of it. It is not a rejection of meaning, but a practice that plays with the concept of meaning as never factual or final (Gergen, 1991).

One implication of this is that viewing engineering and engineering education as sites for postmodern paradigms and practices also means simultaneously seeing them as sites for non-postmodern paradigms and practices. Engineering is not “postmodern,” nor is it “non-postmodern” — it is both of these, and more, at the same time. The intent is not to have postmodern ideas in engineering replace the non-postmodern ones, as if doing so were an unequivocal upgrade — again, such a move would be antithetical to the postmodern perspective. Instead, postmodernism entangles with engineering education and encourages it to tinker with itself to see what happens.

Any postmodern practice must exist alongside other perspectives and practices, since the practice of critique is impossible without something to critique, and the practice of destabilization is impossible without structure to destabilize. As Jackson and Mazzei say in their preface to “Thinking with Theory,” “a recognition of the limits of our received practices does not mean that we reject such practices; instead, we work the limits (and limitations) of such practices” (2012, p. ix). Postmodernism simultaneously works with, within, and against other paradigms for thinking and being. The next section will explore the sorts of received philosophies and practices within engineering education qualitative research that a postmodern perspective could work with, within, and against.