Theses Doctoral

Teaching Towards the Vocation of Life: Perspectives on Purpose in Undergraduate Engineering Education

Strauss, Elizabeth

This study examines ideas of purpose in undergraduate engineering education by drawing on John Dewey’s conception of “Vocation of Life” and the more recent conception of “Twenty-First Century Skills.” Through a single-site case study and utilizing the constant comparative method, this study produced a set of student learning outcomes the faculty at “Oxbow College” describe for their disciplinary teaching that includes technical, professional, and personal skills. The faculty also described a set of department, school, and national level (i.e. ABET accreditation) contexts that impacted their conceptions.

This study is set within a broader landscape of attainment issues in STEM education, and engineering specifically, including: 1) student interest in an engineering education; 2) persistence in engineering education for all students; 3) attainment of engineering degrees by a diverse set of students representing the broader national population. Addressing these challenges is imperative because engineering remains of great importance to the United States’ position of technical authority in the world though the United States confers a significantly lower proportion of bachelors degrees in science and engineering compared with other industrialized nations. Compounding this challenge is the need to broaden engineering education to include non-technical skills without sacrificing technical rigor.

Most noteworthy in the findings of this study, these faculty speak directly to a set of student learning outcomes including technical and non-technical (professional and personal) skills in their disciplinary engineering courses. In doing so, they are expanding the idea of what an engineering education does and what it intends to do. The purpose of an undergraduate engineering education at Oxbow College, as described by faculty, is to prepare students for all aspects of their lives after graduation.

This study provides insight into what these engineering faculty perceive as important in their courses, demonstrating a shift away from the historical divide between professional and liberal education as well as providing an example of the broadening of student learning outcomes – which has implications for calculating the return on investment of a college education. By emphasizing more than just their disciplinary content, these faculty are reflecting a larger societal change regarding the purpose of higher education.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Baldwin, William J.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
July 27, 2020