Will the engineering community accept education research as real research and not just another form of teaching?

Moderator: There’s an issue here that we’re not getting to, I want to do it quickly. Will the engineering community accept education reseach as real research and not just another form of teaching?

Gary Gabriele: I think our hope is: eventually. So the question is how long will that take and what will be required to get there? And I think it creates a challenge any new research field has is getting off the ground. And I think that’s where we are. We’ve been through probably, roughly, twenty or so years of trying to build the community, build an infrastructure, build a sense that this is an important area. And I think we’re at, at least our feeling is at the National Science Foundation, is we’re kind of at a stepping off point to make that happen. And so now we really need the community to step up and do that. We recognize, I think we all recognize that there are a lot of hurdles involved in making it an accepted research area in engineering education. Maybe we can list off some of those easily ourselves from our own experiences, in what we’ve seen and maybe what we’ve seen in other areas as well, of trying to make research in education a qualified research topic. But I think our hope is that eventually that will happen and I hope it happens soon because I think there are some very important issues that engineering education is facing that we need to get to.

David Radcliffe: I think the real thing there is to see it as a discipline so that it has all the characteristics of any other discipline: has a body of knowledge, a mode of inquiry, a way of finding out, asking questions. And I think that’s the way you have to start looking at it rather than just a piece of research, to see it in that discipline sense, just as there’s mechanical, electrical. That’s the way I think to characterize it and move on to the next level so it’s not just some research over here, it’s a discipline that has all those characteristics.

Jim Pellegrino: And one of the things I would hope is that for that field to be recognized, that it doesn’t get caught up in some of the debates that we are seeing right now, which I think are very unproductive, in the general area of educational research, where people have begun to engage in debates as to what constitutes research, particularly qualitative versus qualitative methodologies. The National Research Council has put out a very nice report on scientific research in education which lays out what constitutes the elements of any scientific inquiry. And so there’s a body of work that can be then connected to the content issues in engineering so that we don’t end up replicating debates in the engineering education profession that have proved to be somewhat counterproductive within the broader field of educational research.

Sheri Sheppard: I would say an interesting challenge for the community is that, in fact, our customers for this research are the people in the offices next door to us. And so I would say, unlike traditional research in engineering where your customer might be Northrop Grumman where you’ve got a partnership or the broader engineering community, the people you want to convince that the knowledge you’re generating is relevant to what they do every day in the classroom is the person next door. And I think that does provide some marketing challenges, that what you’re doing is distinct from scholarship of teaching if we would agree that we would hope that is what every faculty member is doing in their work, that you have something to offer. So I think we do have some marketing issues.

Norman Fortenberry: But on Sheri’s point, it also raises an interesting paradox, or challenge. In most fields of research the researcher is not held to an immediate return on investment, in terms of practical application of that basic research knowledge. In this field of research we’re held to, “Well, what can I do with that in the classroom next week?” And that’s a new twist, and I understand why that’s true, but we have to recognize that its not like its normally done.

Moderator: So are you saying that the methodologies used in technical research are different than the methodologies used in education research?

Norman Fortenberry: I’m saying, for example, with quantitative research they’re very similar if not the same. I’m say the expectation of payoff from the research is different. If I’m doing research in composite materials and I’m looking at how I’m going to align my substrate and my filaments, nobody is expecting me to put that into an aircraft next week. But if I’m doing research on education, they want to know what happens, how can I use that research.

Gary Gabriele: Well, I think I know what Norm’s saying, but I don’t know that I agree. I think maybe the fact that… I guess my perception of engineering research is that we’re often doing it for a purpose, for a customer. At least that’s the impression I get walking the halls at NSF, is that we have a purpose, we have a reason for what we want to do with that work. Not maybe immediately, but long range I think we’re seeing that there is a customer for what we want to do. I’m not sure I agree completely with what you’re saying. I think there’s an opportunity to say that there’s still some strong similarities in what we’re doing in engineering.

Jim Pellegrino: I guess one of the questions I have that I would pose for our group is: Can someone define for me, following your point, what exactly is the nature of the problem that we’re trying to solve with engineering education research? I think that in many other cases its very clear, the problem we are trying to solve, the issue we’re trying to address. And I think one of the concerns I have is trying to get clarity as to what those in the field of engineering education believe are the issues or problems to which this scholarly work can be addressed.

Moderator: Sheri, what problem are we trying to solve?

Sheri Sheppard: I guess I would summarize it: we’re hoping to make a better engineer, and in engineering terms, you’re usually trying to optimize “lighter, better, cheaper”. And usually you can to two of the three. And so I would say in general that’s my motivation, and a lot of others, is we have a system called the educational system and one of the inputs and outputs of that is the human being and so how do we do it “lighter, better, cheaper”?

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