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An ethnographic study of social justice themes in engineering education

posted on 06.12.2017, 00:00 by G Ricco, Matthew Ohland
Theodore von Karman situates the engineering discipline, saying, “Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.” This is a widely accepted characterizationof the engineering discipline—the pursuit of reinventing the world for the benefit of humanity. This view of engineering embodies two assumptions—first, that the current state of things is not ideal, and second, that the work of engineering results in improving the current state of things. For instance, the Engineer of 2000 is followed by the Engineer of 2020. What I endeavored over the period of nearly one and one-half years was to discover, probe, and investigate engineers within and without the classroom environment of a firstyearengineering course at a major research institution in the Midwest. I did not begin with numerous hypotheses to this fieldwork, but instead relied upon the Chicago-style tradition of semi-journalistic ethnography (Anderson, 2003; Burgess, 1984; Park, 1921). In essence, my approach to student observations takes much from fundamental and accepted guidelines of observation, (Burgess, 1984; Frankfort-Nachmias & Nachmias, 1996; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2004; Strauss, 1987), including those with special instructions on undergraduate work (Spradley, 1979, 1980), with the caveat that I focus as much as possible on the relaying of the story (Kent, 1993) and less upon the semanticconstruction of hierarchic sets to build a primary or even final ethnosphere. In addition to presenting the story that emerged by observing students, I also devote time to encouraging the reader to engage in ethnography—not just as a research tool, but as a tool for social change—a mechanism for promoting social justice.Since this is a book chapter, my intentions for this work do not entirely fit the journal model. I will not only provide example ethnography from first principles and seed synergistic dialogue, but I will also encourage my peers to take up the mantle of field observation. In other words, if you, the reader, strive with me to observe students “in the wild,” I will endeavour to provide signposts to guide your journey. I do not intend to detail the complete history of social justice in the Western world, nor will I pretend that ethnography containsthe panacea for all engineering education issues. Nevertheless, ethnography holds promise to hold a mirror to the institution of engineering education (and education as a whole) toreflect where the aims of the institution are not necessarily consistent with the modes of instruction or evaluation (Lumina Foundation, 2008; Reyna, Reindl, Witham, Stanley, & National Governors Association, 2010; Shuman, 2005). The influence of the military industrial complex on the content and process of higher education is diminishing (Bix, 2005). The academy’s foray into issues such as sustainability indicate that engineers and engineeringeducation are positioning themselves to be direct and conscious elements of social change. (McDonnell & Elmore, 1987; National Science Foundation, 2008) If engineers are to take upon themselves the mantle of directing social change, then ethnography offers a robust platform via which engineers can become immersed in the world of the beneficiaries of their work, whether the beneficiary is a county municipality in need of a new bridge or a small town in need of a new well.


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Purdue University Press

Place of Publication

West Lafayette, Ind.

Open Access


External Author Affiliations

Purdue University; TBA Research Institute;

Era Eligible


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