Examining a novel theory-to-practice effort in engineering education through multiple theoretical lenses of systems and change Conference

Secules, S, Bale, JJ, Sochacka, NW et al. (2018). Examining a novel theory-to-practice effort in engineering education through multiple theoretical lenses of systems and change . 2018-June

cited authors

  • Secules, S; Bale, JJ; Sochacka, NW; Walther, J


  • In the past, the engineering education community has focused primarily on developing evidence-based best practices and fundamental theories of teaching and learning. An emerging focus, embodied in initiatives like the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) program, is on achieving systemic, sustainable, and scalable change, that is, the translation of theory to impact practice. Current models for engineering education units within universities have achieved goals to develop fundamental theory, making engineering education into a viable discipline. Alternative institutional models for engineering education are beginning to emerge that explore new avenues for achieving widespread, transformational impacts on educational practice. This paper describes a novel, next generation approach to translating theory to practice, and transforming an institutional culture through an integrated focus on building community and shared capacity around the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) and educational research in a college of engineering. When organizing a departmental or programmatic effort, logistical decisions can dominate and obscure the underlying organizing theory for the effort. Consistent with NSF's calls for a greater understanding of theories of change, we connect the explicit and implicit organizing philosophies underpinning the innovative approach to enacted institutional plans and approaches. We draw on Henderson's theoretical models of Institutional Change in higher education to clarify the chosen approach to transformation. We also draw on a complex systems perspective as a guiding philosophy to conceptualize change in the interconnected human, institutional, and social structures of our engineering college, and on boundary spanning to address the ways that communication across knowledge domains can be enacted and supported. The anthropologically inspired methodology explores institutional artifacts, structure, and guiding philosophies for their explicitly stated or implicitly enacted theories. As a collaboration between insiders (founders and longtime participants) and relative outsiders (a new participant), the innovative approach could be both described from experience and examined anew, and could explore both planned intentions and enacted realities. Guiding principles, made explicit in PROGRAM founding documents and written reflections of organizers, include "plant a lot of seeds" and "people are the drivers of change." An organizing structure includes administrative and faculty roles with dual focuses on developing research and translating to practice. Several opportunities for engagement between researchers and practitioners are structured as regular events and forums. We connect the guiding theories to specific aspects of PROGRAM to clarify the purpose and implicit assumptions embedded inside institutional practices. For example, the events and forums can be understood as a form of boundary spanning, while the underlying goal of investing in people is consistent with Henderson's "developing reflective practitioners" model for institutional change. We highlight PROGRAM's approach to engineering educational transformation, substantiated by guiding theories. In so doing, we hope to provide greater insight into one approach, show contrasts with other approaches, and suggest a parallel theoretical clarification as a generative activity for other efforts at institutional change.

publication date

  • June 23, 2018


  • 2018-June