From a variety of sources, a persistent set of issues has posed a challenge to the profession of engineering. Rapid technological changes require that engineers learn to think more flexibly, to work in teams, to appreciate the importance of entrepreneurial creativity, and to incorporate social skill and poise into one’s professional toolkit. The complexities of ensuring a safe and protected environment for future generations requires that engineering give renewed attention to the importance of the profession’s social responsibilities. Equally, the profession continues to face enormous challenges to ensure gender and racial equity and representation. While these are not altogether new challenges to the profession, two new models in engineering education at Smith College and Olin College of Engineering have given them renewed attention. Will these new models of engineering education produce a different kind of productive and responsible engineer and, further, do these programs pose a challenge to the dominant institutional models of engineering education exemplified by private, elite engineering institutions such as MIT or the land-grant tradition of engineering education represented by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst?

This study joins research on neo-institutional theory with research on theories of professional socialization to explore these questions. Research from the neo-institutional perspective, suggests that despite the effort to innovate, Smith and Olin are likely to develop programs that are isomorphic with the existing institutions. Despite efforts to hire and retain “non-traditional” professionals, the faculty at Smith and Olin, socialized and educated in the dominant, institutional culture of engineering, are likely to mimic and replicate the values, pedagogies, professional orientations, and taken-for-granted assumptions of conventional engineering through their teaching. If these institutionalist hypotheses are validated, then women and minorities from these schools will find it no easier to navigate successful patterns of professionalization than in the conventional programs.

There is research on professonal disposition to suggest, however, that students do not enter the academy as a blank slate and that students at Smith, Olin, MIT and UMass pick the school they attend because it “fits” their professional value orientations. These new institutions offer a different engineering script and thus will attract a different engineering students. Thus, it is likely that students with a positive predisposition toward the value orientations of their respective programs will experience success in the program and will persist in the profession. However, where the program’s culture does not “fit” the student’s predisposition, there will be a tendency toward departure.

A student’s professional identity may, however, be much more fluid than theories of either professional socialization or predisposition suggest. The steps to becoming an engineer are multifaceted; students are expected to become experts in a substantive area, feel confident in their abilities, able to work with other peers in team-based projects, capable of communicating effectively to potential clients or supervisors, and committed to the values and goals of their professional calling. The trajectory of acquiring this range of understandings may be uneven and engender multiple identities, depending on time, place, and local institutional culture.

To address these questions, we are following a cohort of students at these four programs for five years, from their first year of college to their first year of employment and/or graduate study. The goal of this investigation is to develop a rich, multifaceted understanding of how students become professional engineers. We are collecting data through four methods: (1) a web-based survey of a random sample of first year engineering and a control group of liberal arts students at all four institutions; (2) observations of orientation sessions, classroom interactions, and large convocations; (3) diaries written at least twice monthly by at least ten students at each school; (4) indepth, open ended interviews with at least 25 students as well as similar interviews with faculty and administrators at each school.

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0240817. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Carroll Seron, co-PI, University of California, Irvine

Ayn Cavicchi (2003-)
Brian Rubineau (2003-)
Gina Louise Sciarra (2003-2007)
Tim Goddard (2003-2006)
Erin Cech (2006-)
Katherine Carpenter (2005-)
Steven Boutcher (2005-)
Shamana Desai (2005-2006)
Puja Ruparel (2005-2006)
Anthony Toscano (2005-2006)
Alex Rodriquez (2006-2007)
Leslie Razo (2006-2007)
Lauren Cvelbar (2006-2008)
Kevin Chicas (2007-2008)
Manal Hanna (2007-2008)
Enrique Gracian (2008-)
Angela Evosevic (2005-2006)
Anne Dalgish (2005-2006)
Heather McIndoe (2004-2006)
Jean Bucaria (2003-2005)
Richard Berman (2003-2004)
Ingrid Seaman (2003-2004)
Penelope Dane (2003-2004)
Catherine Wilson (2003-2004)
Esra Ozkan (2003-2004)
Will Taggart (2003-2004)



"An Engineering Experiment", from Technology Review, October, 2005.