Math, Science, Engineering – Sociologists Are Your Friends

Moderator: I have a question from this side. Yes?

Audience Member: Good morning, my name is Leonard Uitenham, I’m from North Carolina A&T. I chair the Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering. The question I’d like for the panel to address – you know in engineering one of the challenges we have particularly when you get to the junior and senior levels – we expect the math department to teach them their math and to teach them their science and then they throw them over the fence and then we get them. So the question is, and that’s a paradigm we’ve probably been working with for the past 60 or 70 years, is there some productivity if we try to change that, and allow us to get more of these other kinds of issues in the curriculum?

Moderator: Thank you. Sheri?

Sheri Sheppard: I think what you’re talking about actually is a paradigm shift. If you look at the history of engineering education, we’ve always been tied to math and science being these foundational first two-year things, and then you come over to engineering. So I think there have been some fairly bold experiments that have been run at a number of institutions, funded by NSF, that I’m not sure how well known they are. Of how you try to integrate engineering with math and science from day one.

But I think those are the sort of things we need to start pushing against or for, because the reality is that much of students’ first exposure to engineering is with physics faculty and math faculty. Not that they aren’t great, but they’re not engineers, either.

Moderator: Elaine, are we looking at sociologists and engineers in the same vein?

Elaine Seymour
: I was going to answer now the question, but I’ll answer that if you like. I think sociologists have an enormous amount of fellow thought with engineers. I think they may be the closest social science to engineers, because we both are concerned with real world issues, we’ re concerned with problems, we’re concerned with why things do and don’t work. We’re interested in patterns. So sociologists are your friends, believe me.


My dad was an engineer. I don’t see any difference, in a way, to the concerns that we have. I was going to answer a different question. I can’t think what it was, now.


Norman Fortenberry: Let me pick up briefly on Elaine’s point. I mentioned that I was privileged in March to host a meeting that we convened of engineers and sociologists working together to look at common research issues and the dynamics of on-campus change and innovation in the engineering curriculum. It was a very pleasant day and a half. They actually managed to speak to each other and could understand each other, and came up with a very robust research agenda.

Moderator: Carl?


Moderator: Carl had some interesting statistics over drinks last night about the role of sociologists in papers that were being… Jack Bowman. Jack, are you here? Do you want to comment on the increase in the number of papers accepted if a sociologist is listed as a co-author with an engineer in the Journal of Engineering Education?

Jack Bowman: I’ll give you a sense of context. Carl is editor of the Annals for Research in Engineering Education and there’s an advisory board. That’s what he’s referring to. I reported at this advisory board yesterday, that at least in the Journal of Engineering Education, we’ve gone through an analysis of some of the papers that have been published over the last couple of years. To the extent that there was at least one engineer and one educator meaning, cognitive science, sociologist and so forth on the paper, there’s a 30 percent chance the paper got published. If it was all engineers, it was about two or three percent. So it tells you a little bit about some of the context in which some of this is important.

Moderator: Sociologists are your friends.


Elaine Seymour: I don’t know how to interpret that.

David Radcliffe: … point on that one too. There’s not necessarily a causal relationship on that. But I have a concern that as engineers start to be involved with learning sciences and sociology and anthropology and so on and so forth, there’s a temptation for engineers who are quite confident about doing things to think they can go read a few papers in the area, and then suddenly become an expert in that area rather than working with the colleague from that field.

I have some real concerns that you get instant ethnographers out there, and they haven’t been through the discipline or the apprenticeship or the background reading of it. So that’s a word of warning. I think we sometimes think we can do it all. We can’t, we need to work collaboratively.

Elaine Seymour: You’re right, David. It’s an issue with evaluation particularly. I would encourage anyone who has a program that will need to be evaluated to find good help on your own campus. It’s fine to go out and find an external evaluator. It’ll cost you quite a bit of money. You’d better go and find the people on the other side of the campus who will come and give you a hand and work with them. But don’t reinvent wheels.

Moderator: Thank you. Sheri?

Sheri Sheppard: I think all of this, though, adds another challenge for junior faculty. Because regardless of whether you’re working in engineering education research, if you’re doing any interdisciplinary research as a junior faculty member, you’re kind of at peril in terms of how are you staking out what your contribution is. So whether that’s an E.E. faculty member working with computer science with M.E., know and be able to define what you’re adding to the mix.

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