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Those who attend or work at a university will often joke about the differences between the subcultures and epistemological approaches associated with their school’s many colleges and majors.  Science students, for example, sometimes joke about liberal arts students being flakey or ambiguous in their thinking; liberal arts students may joke about science students being rigid or narrow in their thinking. But, how different are students from major to major really? Recently, a group of professors and undergraduates here at Purdue began examining some of the differences between students of two majors that may appear quite similar in subject and approach to outsiders: Engineering and Technologist students. From their first endeavors into researching these students, they are finding that students of Engineering and Technology seem to take markedly different approaches to information literacy and problem-solving.

Their project is called “Innovation Differentiation: Examining the Problem-Solving Approaches of Engineering and Technologist Students.”  The team consists of Dr. Michael Fosmire (Associate Professor of Library Science), Dr. Todd Kelley (Assistant Professor of Technology, Leadership, and Innovation), Dr. Senay Purzer (Assistant Professor of Engineering Education), Nathan Moody (undergraduate in Technology, Leadership, and Innovation), and Kayla Fouch (undergraduate in Biology). This group endeavored to determine if Engineering students and Technology students approach the design process in different ways: whether they use different problem solving strategies, and whether they use their time differently. The team took four students—two from Engineering and two from Technology—and gave them a sample project to work on while the team observed them and their work. The team videotaped the students as they worked, took screen captures of what they typed on computers, and analyzed the drawings they produced. Having collected this information, they attempted to characterize the differences between them, asking such key questions as:

  • “How did the students try to define the problem in front of them?”
  • “How did they try to brainstorm a solution?”
  • “How did they try to model a solution?”; and
  • “How did they try to determine  the successfulness of their solution?”

The team found that, even though Engineering and Technologist students may appear similar in terms of the type of work they are doing, the students they observed ended up approaching that work very differently. They found that Technology students searched for more information to inform their working with the problem. Instead of making assumptions about the problem and what resources were available to them, they tried gathering data from external sources to figure out what they could work with. By contrast, the Engineering students worked more from the knowledge base they already possessed and conducted less research into the problem.

As the team characterized it, the Technology students were more “problem focused,” while the Engineering students were more “solution focused.” The Technology students focused on figuring out what the problem was, then figuring out a solution based on that. The Engineering students, on the other hand, made a number of assumptions at the beginning of the design process about, for example, what kinds of resources and budget was available, and they did not try to determine who the stakeholders were; instead they worked based on their intuitive grasp of their subject matter to get an idea of what the possibilities might be for their design. While Technology students tried to figure out what has worked best in the past in similar situations in order to adapt those situations to their current project, the Engineering students were more likely to try to develop models and develop their designs from scratch.

The speculation at this point is that these kinds of decisions may reflect the methods and focuses of their different majors. Technologists consider themselves a kind of applied engineering, while Engineers consider themselves more of an “Engineering science” with an approach that is more abstract in nature. To arrive at clearer answers, the team studying these questions will conduct further investigations into these new areas of thinking about Engineering and Technologist approaches to the design process.

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