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(Re)Constructing the Professional Formation of Engineers: A Human-Centered Model of Communication Design

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posted on 14.05.2019 by David H. Torres
This study introduced a design-inspired approach to unpack problems of professional formation
of engineers: 1) the gap between what students learn in universities and what they practice upon
graduation; 2) the perception that engineering is solely technical, math, and theory oriented; and
3) the lack of diversity and inclusion (incorporation of difference in perspectives, values, and
ways of thinking and being engineers) in many engineering programs. The current project
investigated the discursive practices and institutional processes that contributed to or inhibited
innovative and inclusive professional formation within an undergraduate engineering setting.
Specifically, this project showed how Grounded Practical Theory (GPT), Communication as
Design (CaD), and Human-Centered Design (HCD) offer alternative pathways to conceptualize
the processes of professional formation.

The context for this study involved the professional formation of engineers at a School of
Biomedical Engineering (BME) at a large, Midwestern university. Participants for this study
included undergraduate students and faculty, staff, and administration (FSA). Semi-structured
interview data was collected and explored participants’ descriptions, accounts, and experiences
related to professional engineering formation in BME. Data collection included 33 total
interviews including 15 FSA and 18 student interviews. The study involved an empirical
examination of discursive practices that invoked, reproduced, and maintained discourses of
professional engineering at the BME school.

Based on insights gained from the empirical examination of discursive practices, a GPT
framework was applied to examine conflicts in professional formation, strategies participants
used to overcome these challenges, and the underlying rationale for these strategies. Specifically, the goal of gaining a broad knowledge base—incorporating expertise across various engineering
and science disciplines—often can come at the expense of realizing specific application and
technical know-how. For many participants, both goals were critical for becoming a professional
biomedical engineer but often times blocked a discourse of professional formation that was
innovative and inclusive. Participants revealed that a standard lecture curriculum influenced this
tension, in many cases for the worse. However, findings suggested that strategies for overcoming
these conflicts were by integrating lecture curricula with more active learning formats (e.g.,
undergraduate research, lab participation). Moreover, findings showed how standard lecture
communication designs shaped and maintained a discourse community more likely to emphasize
understanding engineering as a science and also gaining a broad knowledge base often times at
the expense of realizing specific application and technical know-how.

This study’s analysis offers several theoretical contributions. First, GPT pointed to the deeply
integrated relationship between the ontological and epistemological foundations of biomedical
engineering professional formation. That is, becoming a biomedical engineer meant having
knowledge of several sets of disciplinary expertise while also understanding when and how to
enact this knowledge in practice. Second, professional formation designs for communication
(e.g., lecture designs, active learning designs) presupposed something about the recurrent
practices held within the school and how these recurrent practices constituted professional
ontology and epistemology in ways that were both enabling and problematic, Third, and from a
HCD perspective, exploring designs for communication brought to life the ways participants,
through interactivity, actively designed discourses of professional formation in an attempt to
achieve and meet their epistemological and ontological goals.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy



Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Additional Committee Member 2

Stacey L. Connaughton

Additional Committee Member 3

Seungyoon Lee

Additional Committee Member 4

Carla B. Zoltowski

Additional Committee Member 5

Andrew O. Brightman