Constructing the concept of contextual competence in an undergraduate engineering curriculum
Carmichael, Carol Susan
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A two-questionnaire protocol for exploring how faculty members in an academic program perceive a multidisciplinary outcome was developed and demonstrated in an undergraduate engineering program. The case study provides a detailed description of how faculty members in an undergraduate chemical engineering program at a doctoral-level university perceive contextual competence, a multidisciplinary outcome of engineering education that lies in the common ground between general education and the major. The study included faculty from chemical engineering and the humanities and social sciences responsible for teaching the general education component of the curriculum. What distinguishes this study from previous work is the holistic exploration of these issues within a specific academic program rather than the multi-institution contexts of previous studies. The protocol results provide guidance to the faculty in the chemical engineering program on how to approach the enduring challenge of integrating learning across the two stems of the engineering curriculum. It addresses the fundamental challenges to curriculum coherence: the development of shared goals and objectives among faculty members responsible for general education and the major, and the selection of relevant courses and evaluation methods to achieve them. The case study provided four types of information that can be used to begin a constructive dialogue process on shared objectives between faculty in engineering and the humanities and social sciences. (1) The results showed that the chemical engineering faculty viewed the two-questionnaire protocol as an authentic process for program improvement by the chemical engineering faculty. (2) The protocol yielded an operational definition of contextual competence characterized by 70 outcome attributes in seven thematic areas. (3) Data obtained from the protocol was used to identify areas of consensus among the faculty on the outcome definition, courses in the curriculum relevant to developing contextual competence, and appropriate evaluation methods. (4) The protocol provided insight into the social connectedness among the faculty participants and the opportunities for implementing a dialogue process on shared educational objectives.