Socially constructed identities and language practices influence the ways students perceive themselves as learners, problem solvers, and future professionals. While research has been conducted on individuals’ identity as engineers, less has been written about how the language used during engineering problem solving influences students’ perceptions and their construction of identities as learners and future engineers. This study investigated engineering students’ identities as reflected in their use of language and discourses while engaged in an engineering problem solving activity. We conducted interviews with eight engineering students at a large southeastern university about their approaches to open and closed-ended materials engineering problems. A modification of Gee’s analysis of language-in-use was used to analyze the interviews. We found that pedagogical and engineering problem solving uses of language were the most common. Participants were more likely to perceive themselves as students highlighting the practices, expectations, and language associated with being a student rather than as emerging engineers whose practices are affected by conditions of professional practice. We suggest that problem solving in an academic setting may not encourage students to consider alternative discourses related to industry, professionalism, or creativity; and, consequently, fail to promote connections to social worlds beyond the classroom. By learning about the ways in which language in particular settings produces identities and shapes problem solving practices, educators and engineering professionals can gain deeper understanding of how language shapes the ways students describe themselves as problem-solvers and make decisions about procedures and techniques to solve engineering problems.


Engineering Students, Identity, Language-In-Use

Author Bio(s)

Mirka Koro-Ljungberg (Ph.D., University of Helsinki) is a Professor of qualitative research at the Arizona State University. Her scholarship operates in the intersection of methodology, philosophy, and socio-cultural critique and her work aims to contribute to methodological knowledge, experimentation, and theoretical development across various traditions associated with qualitative research. She has published in various qualitative and educational journals and she is the author of Reconceptualizing Qualitative Research: Methodologies without Methodology (2016) published by SAGE. She may be contacted at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, PO BOX 87181, Tempe AZ 85287; Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: mirka.koro-ljungberg@asu.edu.

Elliot P. Douglas is Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering Sciences at the University of Florida. He conducts research on engineering education, with a focus on problem-solving, critical thinking, diversity and inclusion in engineering, and the use of qualitative methods in engineering education research. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment, University of Florida 204 Black Hall, Box 116450, Gainesville, FL 32611; Email: elliot.douglas@essie.ufl.edu.

Nathan McNeill is an instructor of mechanical engineering with the University of Colorado Boulder where he teaches upper division undergraduate courses in the thermal sciences. He has a PhD in engineering education from Purdue University and does research on student problem solving. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: University of Colorado Boulder/Colorado Mesa University Mechanical Engineering Partnership Program, 2510 Foresight Circle, Grand Junction, CO 81505; Email: nmcneill@colorado.edu.

Dr. David J. Therriault is an Associate Professor in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in the College of Education at the University of Florida. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of New Hampshire and his M. A. and Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Therriault's primary research interests include the representation of text in memory, comprehending time and space in language, the link between attention and intelligence, the use of perceptual symbols in language, creativity and problem solving, and educational issues related to these topics. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: School of Human Development and Organizational Studies (SHDOSE), University of Florida Gainesville, FL 32611-7047; Email: therriault@coe.ufl.edu.

Dr. Christine Lee Bae’s research focuses on applying principles of educational and cognitive psychology to teaching and learning across the K-20 continuum. She has worked on several interdisciplinary STEM education projects that include studies of college engineering students, middle school science teaching and learning, and secondary science teacher preparation. She also examines cognition in higher education, exploring strategies that promote meaningful learning. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: Department of Foundations of Education, Virginia Commonwealth University, Oliver Hall, Office 4074, 1015 W. Main Street, P.O. Box 842020, Richmond, VA 23284-2020; Email: clbae@vcu.edu.

Dr. Zaria Malcolm is a Fulbrighter who earned her PhD. in Higher Education Administration with minor in Qualitative Methodology from the University of Florida. She also holds a bachelors and master’s degree from the University of the West Indies, Mona Jamaica. Currently, Dr. Malcolm holds the position of Vice Principal of Academic Affairs & Institutional Advancement at the Excelsior Community College, Jamaica. In her current post she has responsibility for institutional partnerships, academic quality assurance, strategic planning, accreditation and institutional research and overall leadership of the institution’s academic division. Her research agenda focuses on diversity issues with special focus on international education issues, in addition to a focus on qualitative methodology-based research. She is specifically interested in focusing on higher education issues affecting the Caribbean education system and stakeholders directly and indirectly associated with such. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: zaria.malcolm@ecc.edu.jm.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0909976.

Publication Date


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.





To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.