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“What is Engineering?

”: Singapore
Students Beliefs about Engineering
Preman Rajalingam

Introduction Key findings – The outcomes and processes Key findings – The prevalent conceptions of
The doubling of engineering knowledge every 10 years (Clough that students associate with engineering engineering among students in a polytechnic
2004) and a general decline in student interest (Bowen, Prior et al. Table 2
2008), are but two of many issues faced by engineering education in DESIGN 5
Singapore and other developed countries. As the profession of Categorisation of pictorial and textual data that indicate student
engineering evolves, inevitably so do the beliefs that student‟s hold perspectives on engineering ‘outcomes’
about engineering. An understanding of these beliefs could be useful
in determining engineering enrolment, designing curriculum, DESIGN Planning, schematics, blueprints,
deciding on pedagogy and marketing engineering courses in drawing, circuit diagrams,
addition to many other issues. While such research into engineering designing and engineering sketches,
connecting Design and Technology TOOLS
epistemologies has been identified as a priority area for research in 15
different projects, conceptual
engineering education (SCNEERC, 2006), the literature is this area components diagrams
is modest as compared with the literature on student beliefs about TRANSPORT 11
other domains such as science and mathematics. INNER Inner workings of mechanical gears and
a device, pulleys, gears of a bicycle,
This poster shares the results of a pilot study on the beliefs about technology below IC chips, Printed Circuit BUILDING 19
engineering held by 71 students studying in a polytechnic in the surface Boards, electronic
components, engine parts,
Singapore. The data are both visual and textual in nature and were close up of engine Unassigned 3
coded to reveal the qualitatively different beliefs held by students.
The visual data when analysed together with the textual data, SOCIAL Impact of freedom, changes the 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20
revealed information about student perspectives on the nature of engineering on fabric of society, progress, Figure 1
engineering through its „outcomes‟. In-depth analysis of the textual economy, society social engineering, ethics,
or human politics, economy, money Chart showing the number of participants in each category for
data alone revealed student perspectives on the „processes‟ that progress from engineering engineering ‘outcomes’
engineers and engineering students are involved in.
Note. The were 3 participants whose perspectives on engineering
TOOLS Everyday toothbrushes, mobile „outcomes‟ could not be assigned to any of the other categories they
Context products and phones, bicycles, are represented above as “Unassigned”
tools mostly for computers, laptops,
personal use, gaming devices, cameras,
The five polytechnics in Singapore cater to the largest segment of that make life watches, TVs, message
students in the tertiary education sector. Polytechnics conduct 3-year easier chair, electric drill, bench MAKE 38

diploma programmes as pre-employment education for mainly O- tools, screwdrivers, pliers

FUN 16
Level holders. Polytechnic diploma holders who have performed well BUILDING Stone, concrete, construction sites, historic
usually gain direct entry to university undergraduate programmes at steel or glass structures, buildings, IMPROVE 25
a senior level. structures that skyscrapers, architecture ,
involve bridges, expressways, port CREATIVE 21
construction cranes , city skyline
Of the five polytechnics, the newest one setup in 2002, aims to
achieve the Ministry of Education‟s mission of developing “practice-
oriented and knowledgeable middle-level professionals” by adopting NEW 30
TRANSPORT Vehicles and MRT line, cars, planes,
Problem Based Learning (PBL) as its dedicated pedagogy. This other methods of busses, vehicles, lorries,
means that the entire curricular content is designed as a series of transporting vehicles travelling on roads SOLVE 11
PBL problems. The participants of this study were all students of this people or things
polytechnic. They were enrolled in various technology oriented
diplomas ranging from the traditional disciplines of engineering, SUBJECT 32
sciences and information technology, to industry practices related to
arts, sports, hospitality and leisure. UNDERSTAND 28

Table 3 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40
Categorisation of textual data that indicate student perspectives on Figure 2
Research questions
engineering ‘processes’ Chart showing the participants conceptions of the ‘processes’
This study was guided by the following research question: associated with engineering
MAKE Constructing, “Involves the connection of scientific and mathematical
making, concepts to create and produce practical and helpful things in Note. Each participant could have multiple conceptions (on average
• What are the beliefs about engineering, that polytechnic manufacturing or our life, ranging from a variety of objects from construction,
3 conception per participant)
building physical aviation, automotive and software. Engineering creates and
students in Singapore hold?
things. develops things that have not existed in the natural world and

This question allowed investigation along other subsidiary questions

satisfy human desire or need.”
FUN Engineering as a “Actually to me, engineering is far much more than all these.
such as: The findings of this preliminary study illustrate the conceptions and
fun, enjoyable or Engineering can be as interesting as what other courses can
pleasurable pursuit be. Maybe for one example I would like to use maybe many possible misconceptions that students hold about engineering. Even
• What are the outcomes and processes that students associate people may only heard of entrepreneur but not technopreneur. though these students spend their days immersed in a technological
with engineering? Well I think being a part in this engineering world is interesting
environment and studying technology related subjects, the most
and fun.”
common „outcome‟ associated with engineering was BUILDING (and
• What are the prevalent conceptions of engineering among IMPROVE Improving or “This on the other shows the role of engineering in constantly construction). Fewer than 10% of the students recognised one of the
students? refining existing refining the ways that human being interact with machines and central „outcomes‟ of engineering, DESIGN. This suggests that
technology it is though this constant refinement that we would be able to
do things better and more efficiently than ever.”
despite the relatively advanced level of study many students
associate the most visible and obvious outcomes with engineering.
CREATIVE Being innovative or “And lastly innovation because not everybody are able to come
Method creative up with designs for mundane things like machinery or
equipment. It takes creativity to engineer something that works
It is not surprising then that the strongest conception among the
„processes‟ was MAKE. Again, perhaps reflecting a strong association
This study employs a qualitative research design and analyses both yet is pleasing to the eye.”
of engineering with construction and machines. It is surprising that
photographs as visual data and written reflections as textual data. HUMAN Changing human “Imagine our days without the engineering knowledge? I think
despite studying in a PBL environment that TEAM was not a more
While the photographs themselves are tools that alone may not be life and society we would still be trying hard to get fire by rubbing stone under
the sun. So all in all, learning engineering means enhancing prominent conception. Though it is encouraging to know that almost a
sufficient for addressing research questions, when combined with human life, brings comfort to us and revolve all around us, we quarter of students actually associated engineering with FUN.
other data, they can improve qualitative research (Prosser 1996). can‟t live without it really”
The findings of this study may be used by engineering educators to
NEW Contributing new “One such example of this would be making use of raw
Table 1 help them design curriculum that helps students to develop an
ideas and things materials or learning how to use the raw materials to combine
Demographic information about the 71 participants in this study them into something that is totally new, another example would
understanding of engineering that is more robust and accurate. It is
Subgroup N Male Female Foundation Higher Years be learning the physics of machine and their design.” likely that it will also generates debate around the nature of
Year (Yr 1) (Yr 2-3) SOLVE Finding solutions or “Engineering careers are all about solving human problems!
engineering and how best to investigate conceptions of engineering.
Engineering 32 22 (69%) 10 (31%) 15 (47%) 17 (53%) solving problems Engineers put their skill, imagination and reasoning to work
Future research will determine how demographic factors such as sex,
using the application of technical and scientific knowledge that
Non Engineering 39 19 (49%) 20 (51%) 6 (15%) 33 (85%) year of study and field of study influence beliefs about engineering.
they require in order to come up with new solutions to
problems faced by humans or news ways to solve old Coming to a better understating of the student beliefs about
problems.” engineering, opens the door to examining how such beliefs affect
At the end of the academic year 2008/2009 participants were asked TEAM Teamwork, working “Nevertheless, Teamwork is everything. As from what I see, approaches to learning and choices in professional domains.
to submit, together with a caption, a photo-montage that captured together and Engineers don't work by themselves. They tend to work in
collaborating to small teams, which expect and require creativity, speed, and
their answer to the question “What is engineering?”. They also were
asked to submit a written answer to the question “What does
achieve a goal interaction. The better you learn to work with a team, the References
easier your projects will go.”
learning or doing engineering mean to me?”.
SUBJECT Knowing the static “And to design something, it must have its geometry, Bowen, E., Prior, J., Lloyd, S., & Newman-Ford, L. (2008). Engineering more engineers-bridging
The analysis of the photos and the written data were done together or foundational dimensions, and characteristic numbers and that‟s‟ where the mathematics and careers advice gap. Engineering Education: Journal of the Higher
Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre, 2(1), 23.
within a phenomenographic perspective to reveal the „outcomes‟ knowledge mathematics comes in. Therefore, engineers have to learn
Clough, G. (2004). The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington
connected to mathematics, science, mechanics to be able to design,
associated with engineering. In-depth analysis on the text alone engineering construct, operate and maintain the systems” DC: National Academy of Engineering Press.
revealed the „processes‟ that were associated with engineering. Prosser, J. (1996). What constitutes and image-based qualitative methodology? Visual Sociology,
UNDERSTAND Understanding how “So in relation to what engineering is, learning engineering to 11(2), 25-34.
Throughout the course of the research the emerging categories were
things work or me would be learning how things work and making use of the The Steering Committee of the National Engineering Education Research Colloquies, S. (2006).
discussed and verified with two other researchers, hence improving realising something different things that we have to make them something that is The research agenda for the new discipline of engineering education. Journal of Engineering
the reliability of the results. new useful to us” Education, 95(4), 259-261.

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