J. Melkers, A. Kiopa, R. T. Abler, E. J. Coyle, J. M. Ernst, J. V. Krogmeier, and A. Johnson, “The Social Web of Engineering Education: Knowledge Exchange in Integrated Project Teams," Proceedings of the 2012 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, San Antonio, TX, June 10-13, 2012.

Abstract

The Social Web of Engineering Education: Knowledge Exchange in Integrated Project Teams
The Social Web of Engineering Education: Knowledge Exchange in Integrated Project Teams. Student learning in engineering is increasingly conceived as a process and experience that is situated in what Johri and Olds have called a “complex web of social organization,” rather than one that is limited to “shifts in the mental structures of a learner.” In fact, the social organization across different fields of engineering includes project-based learning, research assistantships, and other mechanisms that approximate the research and collaborative aspects of true-to-life processes. These active learning experiences typically involve peer interactions, and the creation of social communities that focus on applied problems, important for the development of professional capabilities. In turn, the core of cooperative learning is the promotion of learning through providing cooperative incentives rather than competition. In many ways, this emphasis on team work in engineering schools has evolved to embrace not only different approaches to formal learning through classroom and various applied experiences, but also the informal learning that takes places outside of structured activities. From this diverse set of learning environments, students are expected to not only gain technical skills, but also social and group skills relevant to the realities of collaborative work in engineering. This expectation is in turn underscored by accreditation standards of ABET, which include the development of professional skills. We ask: What are the sources of this learning? From whom, or where, do these learning resources flow? Are knowledge flows fairly hierarchical, moving from advanced students to those less experienced? From an instructional perspective, how can learning outcomes be better observed so that faculty can provide appropriate guidance and occasional control? Scholars working in the science of learning argue that peer-relations form a social context of knowledge creation that constitutes a foundation for the development of team-skills. In this paper we show how peer relations develop, and subsequently provide knowledge and learning resources within multi-ranked student teams over time. The data in this paper are based on a multi-year evaluation of the NSF-funded Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program, which brings together graduate and undergraduate students to solve applied engineering problems.Projects are designed so that graduate students can assume leadership roles, and, thus, gain experience in real-time project planning and implementation and management of multidisciplinary teams. Building on the situative learning perspective, we examine the social relationships that occur among the students working in this VIP “complex web of social organization.” Results show different patterns of knowledge seeking and exchange behavior across student groups. These results show that technical knowledge sources are distinct from project management and related information needs. Most interestingly, results show that knowledge exchange does not maintain its hierarchy. Undergraduate students develop their own information communities within teams, including regarding technical information. These results have important implications for the management of teams that include a range of students and expertise.