Preparing students for workplace learning in higher engineering education

A.J.M. Dehing

    Research output: ThesisPhd Thesis 1 (Research TU/e / Graduation TU/e)

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    Student preparation for professional practice is an important course aim in the education of engineers by the universities of applied sciences (Geurts & Meijers, 2004; Sheppard, et al., 2008; Sullivan & Rosin, 2008). Since the start of the professional engineering schools at the beginning of the 20-th century, the educational function of workplace learning has been connecting theory to practice and transforming students into student engineers. Currently, in the four year bachelor course at the universities of applied sciences, students in generally enter workplace learning for one semester, after two years of on campus preparation. Contrasting perspectives on student output of workplace learning exist. Students in general, especially those enrolling form senior general secondary education appreciate workplace learning, as it is their first encounter with engineering practice. Teachers and industry appreciate workplace learning as an important activity for students personal and professional growth. But they also observed substantial developmental differences among students. In contrast, others like the Inspectorate of Education (Inspectie van het Onderwijs) criticised the educational practice of workplace learning because the learning outputs among students are too divers, the university has no control of student workplace learning, and student learning results are not interwoven in the consecutive part the course. We were curious about the ideas behind student development during workplace learning as this might contribute to the improvement of workplace learning in terms of decreasing the developmental differences among students. Therefore, we had to understand, how students in engineering education develop into professional engineers. In other words: how do students develop their professional identity, especially during workplace learning in industry. Furthermore, we wanted to improve the engineering education practice and therefore questioned how the preparation during the engineering courses before workplace learning, could be improved to support and facilitate student process of identity development during workplace. Therefore, in this study we commenced with a literature survey on student identity development and workplace learning (Chapter two). Next, we performed three empirical studies applying different research approaches and qualitative and quantitative research methods. The studies are reported as independent journal articles in the Chapters three, four, five and six and were guided by the following three main research questions: 1. How do bachelor engineering students at universities of applied sciences develop their engineering identity during the courses, especially during workplace learning? (Chapter three and four); 2. What are the design parameters of the preparation for professional practice that contribute most to the development of the engineering identity during workplace learning? (Chapter five); 3. How can the identified design parameters be used in the improvement of courses? (Chapter six); In Chapter three, entitled "Development of an engineering identity in the engineering curriculum in Dutch higher education: An exploratory study from the teaching staff perspective" we studied how engineering students develop a professional identity during the engineering course. Furthermore, we investigated the development mechanisms and important conditions for identity development. In an exploratory study among teachers we studied whether the development of engineering identity can be understood by using the theoretical models of Ibarra and Sullivan. The results showed that the development of engineering identity is boosted during the internship in industry in the third year. During workplace learning, two important conditions for identity development could be identified: 1) industry supervisors’ perception of students and 2) the professional responsibility awarded to the students. Some recommendations for curriculum improvement could be made; for example, introducing projects into the curriculum to stimulate identity development from the start. In Chapter four we studied identity development from the student perspective. Research questions addressed were: to what extent do bachelor engineering students develop their engineering identity during workplace learning in industry; what are the developmental models of engineering identity; and can different effects of these models on student identity development be found? A self-guiding and a mentoring model were studied as developmental models. Student identity was measured on two aspects: clarity and identification. The aspect clarity reflects student perception of the professional role of engineers while the aspect identification measured the social and emotional identification of the student with the engineering profession and engineering professionals. Participants were 256 third-year bachelor student engineers from the mechanical and electrical departments of six Dutch universities of applied sciences. The data were collected with two written questionnaires, one before and one after the workplace learning semester. Results showed, first, an overall significant growth for the clarity aspect of identity development, but no significant growth for the aspect identification was found. Second, no significant difference was found in student identity development between the two developmental models. Third, large differences between students (incline and decline) on the two aspects of identity development (clarity and identification) existed and the combined achievement on the two aspects showed a division of students into four different development groups. Interestingly, students entering workplace learning with a low identity score proved to catch up, while those entering with a high score slowed down and developed less, indicating a non-successful preparation for workplace learning. The division of the students increases diversity and therefore requires further research on the consequences for student educational careers, the final year programme and, last but not least, adequate preparation for workplace learning. Chapter 5 is entitled "Engineering student appreciation of the preparation for professional practice and their professional identity development during workplace learning". The research questions were: how do students appreciate their preparation for professional practice; does student appreciation differ when measured before and after workplace learning; how does student appreciation relate to their identity development during workplace learning; and, which aspects of the preparation require improvement? Dutch universities of applied science prepare engineering students for the engineering profession and professional practice. This preparation includes workplace learning and is an important part of the course, which aims at developing student engineering identity. The first two years of engineering courses focus on academic knowledge and engineering skills. Consequently, student starting point for workplace learning is unbalanced. Teaching staff typically believe that student professional identity develop the most during workplace learning, although they observe large differences among students. Engineering students filled out a questionnaire (before and after workplace learning) that measured professional identity in terms of clarity and identification as well as appreciation of the preparation. Results show that student overall appreciation of the preparation increased when measured after workplace learning, although students perceived the main categories of preparation (disciplinary knowledge, knowledge of the engineering profession and knowledge of the engineering practice) to be unsatisfactory. A weak relationship between the appreciation of the preparation and the identity aspect clarity was found. The main explanation for student increased appreciation is student professional identity development in terms of clarity, which provides a framework for reference for the preparation activities. Main required improvements for preparation were the categories knowledge of the engineering profession and knowledge of the engineering practice. In Chapter 6, "Design consequences for the preparation for professional practice in the first two years of engineering courses" the research questions were: does the staff recognise the findings of our research so far and how can the preparation for professional practice in the first two course years be improved? Our previous studies provided insight into student identity development during workplace learning in industry and their appreciation of the preparation for professional practice during the first two course years. Based on the findings, this chapter focused on the design consequences for this preparation with the aim of improving student identity development during workplace learning. The research findings about students identity development and their appreciation of preparation were reported to six participating universities. Next, staff members were interviewed in order to test whether the results are in line with staff perceptions and to discuss the design consequences for the preparation for professional practice in the engineering courses. The interviews revealed that student identity development was in line with the perceptions of the teachings staff. However, although participants recognised overall student appreciation of the preparation, students had a lower appreciation at the more detailed level of preparation, and this was not recognised. The discrepancy between staff intentions and student perceptions of the engineering course curriculum became clear and was discussed. A number of consequences for the improvement of preparation were identified including: identity development should be the leading curricular aim for engineering courses; the system of career conversations with students in the first two years has to be improved in order to foster the professional orientation of students and support transitions from engineering student to student engineer. Finally, more cooperation among the universities on a shared systematic design approach on student identity development and improvement of the preparation during the first two course years is required. In Chapter seven, "Conclusion and discussion" the main findings of the research are summarized and discussed. Furthermore some limitations of the study are described. Finally, implications for practice and further research are suggested. Main suggestions for educational practice are: the joint approach of the universities to explicate the standards for the engineering profession and the redesign the engineering bachelor courses into a more integrated networked curriculum in which student identity development is facilitated with career conversations. Main suggestion for further research is the monitoring of student identity development over the full four year course.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Eindhoven School of Education
    • Jochems, Wim, Promotor
    • Baartman, Liesbeth, Copromotor
    Award date3 Jul 2012
    Place of PublicationEindhoven
    Print ISBNs978-90-386-3180-6
    Publication statusPublished - 2012

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