Virginia Tech®home

What is Engineering Education Research?

Have you ever looked forward to an engineering course only to find yourself sitting throug a mind-numbingly boring lecture?  Have you ever dreaded a hard engineering topic but discovered it to be fascinating?  Have you ever wondered how students learn engineering knowledge and, realisitically, how long do they retain it?  Engineering education researchers are currently trying to answer these and other questions.

Engineering education research is changing the way that engineers are educated.  The field of engineering education is dominated by engineers, many of whom want to provide students with better educational experiences than they themselves had. Impacting practice is a strong value that distinguishes engineering education from some other fields. However, the strong desire to help students needs to be balanced with systematic studies to understand which educational approaches are most effective under which circumstances. 

Graduates of an engineering education PhD program can find employment as:

  • faculty in a department of engineering education
  • faculty in another engineering department, particularly at an undergraduate institution
  • corporate trainers
  • public servants and policymakers
  • staff in college of engineering dean’s offices
  • directors of engineering diversity programs
  • K-12 teachers (with the appropriate additional credentials)
  • and many other positions requiring coordination of engineering and education components

The PhD is a research degree, so even our PhD candidates who are preparing for teaching careers need to do a systematic research study. Depending on the research design, this might be done in a single classroom with a relatively small group of students. Criteria distinguishing research from other engineering education improvement activities (such as scholarly teaching, scholarship of teaching and learning, or assessment) would be:

  • Build on prior work by citing the experiences and results of other engineering educators.
  • Pose questions or hypotheses that are of broad interest to the engineering education community (e.g., “Which types of projects best facilitate student teamwork?” Is better than “How can I get my students in ENGE 1024 to work together better?”).
  • Employ an explicit educational or engineering theory to guide data collection and analysis.
  • Provide a coherent and explicit chain of reasoning, with methods which address the research question, variables and analyses guided by theory, and full consideration of alternative interpretations of the findings.
  • Replicate results from prior studies in similar settings to evaluate generalizability or transferability across specific settings.
  • Publish or present results so that they can be evaluated and replicated by the scholarly community.

These criteria were adapted from Scientific Research in Education.

The Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech has cultivated core research strengths in professional skills (interdisciplinarity, communication, cross-cultural competence), design education, and first-year courses (particularly learning technology). Retention, diversity, and assessment are important foundational concepts in the field of engineering education; as such, they are elements of all of our projects.

Most of our teaching responsibilities (including teaching assistantships offered to graduate students) are in the first-year engineering program, but we maintain connections with all the engineering departments.  Levels we concentrate our research on are undergraduates, professional engineers, graduate students and faculty.

Read more about individual faculty research interests.