A growing body of research on engineering practice suggests that engineers are often expected to coordinate, collaborate, and communicate across diverse boundaries, including organizational, disciplinary, demographic, stakeholder, cultural, temporal, and spatial, to name a few. To shed further light on the boundary spanning realities of engineering practice, the authors are leading a larger research project focused on two main questions: 1) What specific boundary spanning roles, activities, and competencies are most important and prevalent for early career engineers, and 2) How do early career engineers experience boundary spanning challenges? To address these questions, the research team first performed a qualitative systematic literature review to develop a more holistic understanding of how the phenomenon of boundary spanning is understood in the extant literature. These findings also informed the creation of a codebook that is now being used to analyze more than 20 interviews conducted with early career engineers working as interns or full-time employees in various manufacturing firms.
As the research team started to see novel insights emerge from the interview data, they also wondered how they could get even closer to the experiences of the engineers. For example, spending time on-site as a participant observer or performing an in-depth job task analysis could produce novel insights about the subjects and their work. However, these approaches come with new challenges, including as related to research costs and timelines, gaining access to research sites and subjects, and adapting to the use of new research methods and skill sets. In light of these issues, this paper describes how we used structured reflection activities and post-experience interviews as an alternate way of making visible the realities of engineering practice.
More specifically, we report on data collected from two engineering students in semester-long internship appointments in large manufacturing companies. Each of these students completed three reflection activities during their internship experience: the first after a few weeks in their positions, the second after about six weeks, and the third and final during their last week of work or shortly thereafter. Each wave of data collection involved a partially distinct set of reflection prompts, developed based on the primary phenomenon of interest (i.e., boundary spanning), their internship timeline, and insights gleaned from previous rounds of reflection.
In this paper, we aim to clarify the methodological considerations and approaches we employed. In particular, we are interested in exploring how our specific data collection approach, namely collecting reflections combined with a follow-up semi-structured interview, impacted the quality and trustworthiness of the data. With this broader theme in mind, two more specific objectives are the primary foci of this paper: 1) What do the reflection data and follow-up interviews make visible about engineering practice, including in terms of boundary spanning?, and 2) How do participants respond differently in the reflections and interviews, and how is this potentially related to personality or other individual characteristics?
In support of these objectives we first consider the challenges of studying engineering practice and how others have conducted such research. Second, we report on the types of reflection prompts we developed, justification for their use, and what we hoped they would reveal about the lived working experiences of engineering interns. Third, we consider what the reflections made visible (and not), including a high-level overview of findings related to boundary spanning and other emergent themes. Fourth, we describe differences observed in comparing the two participants’ responses to one another, and also in comparing the reflection and interview data. We conclude by discussing implications and directions for future research, including further data analysis efforts and plans for integrating the reflection and interview data. We expect that this paper will primarily appeal to engineering education researchers seeking innovative methods for studying practice in the engineering workplace and/or other contexts (e.g., teaching practice). It may also be relevant to those interested in using reflection to scaffold experiential learning.
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