NSF EEC-RFE: Understanding and Reshaping Systemic Communication Patterns in Engineering Education (NSF #1531947)

Project’s NSF Page

NSF Project Outcomes Page


Nicola Sochacka, Ph.D. - Former EETI Associate Director for Research Initiation and Enablement
Joachim Walther, Ph.D. - EETI Founding Director, Professor of Engineering Education

Grant Details

Funder: Division of Engineering Education and Centers, National Science Foundation
Amount: $338,174.00
Award number: 1531947
Start and End date: January 2016 – December 2019


Engineering faces persistent challenges in recruiting and retaining students, particularly from underrepresented groups. The field is often perceived as an arcane, highly technical domain, an image that studies show does not resonate with all potential students and does not do justice to the potential contribution that this profession could make to solve 21st century problems. In addressing these connected challenges, engineering educators and professional bodies have invested considerable efforts towards changing perceptions of the field through research and public information campaigns. This project is examining where these perceptions, or narratives, about engineering come from, and in what ways do they exert an influence on the culture and educational practices of the field. The project draws on theory from complex systems sciences and the field of media studies to empirically investigate how collective, self-definitional narratives implicitly and pervasively shape the shared beliefs, explanations, and values that underpin the culture of engineering. By identifying and describing such exclusionary narratives, the project lays the empirical foundation for future work aimed at empowering engineering administrators, educators, and students to reach beyond the confines of narrow and limiting narratives about engineering and broaden the conversation about what engineering is, could be, and who participates in the important societal role of the profession.

Despite ongoing efforts to diversify engineering, undergraduate programs continue to be characterized by a predominately white, male, and privileged population with a preference for objective, convergent, and quantitative ways of thinking. Drawing on complex systems theory, this project explores this apparent systemic resistance to change as rooted in mechanisms of social autopoiesis; that is, the tendency for complex social systems to reproduce themselves through self-definitional, persistent cultural patterns. According to systems theorists, these patterns are created and maintained through communication flows that are told, retold, and enacted in the system. Leveraging prior work on perceptions and public messages of engineering, this project combines a systems thinking theoretical framework with a narrative methodology to empirically examine how engineering narratives autopoietically shape, demarcate, and otherwise influence interactions at an institutional level.

The research design comprises the collection and narrative analysis of publicly available news articles and engineering education and practice reports published by key professional bodies, and the exploratory ethnographic observation and narrative analysis of information exchanges about engineering in an institutional context. The project will generate an empirically grounded, theoretically coherent understanding of the engineering education system as it is embedded in larger communication networks. More specifically, the goal is to develop a systemic understanding of the communication patterns that function to privilege certain understandings of engineering over others. By empirically identifying and explicitly naming these patterns, the transformative potential of this work lies in empowering engineering educators and other stakeholders to critically examine and consequently change the dominant narratives that shape the culture of our engineering programs, in their individual interactions and ultimately at the collective national level.


Sochacka, N. W., Walther, J., Rich, J. R., & Brewer, M. A. (2021). A Narrative Analysis of Stories Told about Engineering in the Public Discourse: Implications for Equity and Inclusion in Engineering. Studies in Engineering Education, 2(2), 54–77. DOI: http://doi.org/10.21061/see.55

Sochacka, N., Culloty, C., Hopkins, J., Harrell, J., & Walther, J. (2020). Using SenseMaker® to Examine Student Experiences in Engineering: A Discussion of the Affordances and Limitations of this Novel Research Approach. In 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access Proceedings. ASEE Conferences. doi:10.18260/1-2--35471

Would you like to learn more about EETI?