What Engineers Do: Framing Engineering Practice - Seminar

Event Date: February 16, 2012
Speaker: Dr. Bill Williams
Speaker Affiliation: Escola Superior de Tecnologia do Barreiro - Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal (The Polytechnic Institute of Setubal, Portugal)
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Location: Forney, G124
Contact Name: Dr. Demetra Evangelou
Contact Phone: 494-4158
Contact Email: evangeloud@purdue.edu

Up to recently, the majority of the literature has tended to view engineering practice in terms of design or technical problem-solving, but such studies have rarely been based on empirical data on what engineering practitioners actually do. However, data from a longitudinal study presented in 2009 suggested that novice engineers in Australia spend the majority of their working week (up to 60%) in activities which involve interaction with others in a variety of contexts while a relatively small part of their time is devoted to individual design or problem-solving activities.

In Portugal we have applied the same online survey to novice engineers, and our results show a similar pattern in that around 60% of perceived working time involves interaction with others (meetings, supervision, writing reports etc.), which suggests a dominant role for social interactions in engineering practice. We are currently triangulating these findings through interviews with engineers in the workplace.

The seminar will present the findings from the research in Portugal and discuss frameworks for characterizing engineering practice as well as possible implications for engineering education of this approach.

This, in turn, will be set in the context of a broader research agenda looking at Strategic Pathways to Engineering Education Research which aims to study strategies to encourage engineering educators to pursue the scholarship of teaching and learning in addition to their specialized engineering research.


Bill Williams originally trained as a chemist at the National University of Ireland and went on to work in education in Ireland, UK, Eritrea, Kenya, Mozambique and Portugal and to run international distance courses for the International Labour Organization in various African countries.

He is a senior lecturer at the Barreiro Engineering School of Setubal Polytechnic Institute in Portugal, where he teaches communication and transverse professional skills to civil engineering undergraduates and he has been an invited lecturer on master’s courses at the Technical University of Lisbon and the Technical University of Madrid.

He has been involved with engineering education research for eight years and is currently working on a project to study the practice of engineering professionals and another focusing on the promotion of active learning in lecture classes, both projects funded by grants from the Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation (FCT). 

He has been a member of the European Working Group on Engineering Education Research of SEFI since its inception in 2009 and was on the local organizing committee for the 2011 Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES 2011). He was responsible for setting up the Engineering Practice Roundtable as an add-on event for REES 2011 in Madrid.