Person or thing oriented: A comparative study of individual differences of first‐year engineering students and practitioners

Event Date: February 7, 2020
Authors: Diana N. Bairaktarova, Mary K. Pilotte
Journal: Journal of Engineering Education
Engineering practice is meant to advance the human condition, yet curricula do not appear to fully promote the human‐centered philosophy of engineering in implementation. The educational system may inadvertently signal to students that engineering is a career choice better suited for those preferring to work with things rather than people. This framing of the profession prompts questions regarding student interests when compared to those of practicing engineers and how such interests become concrete through education and introduction into the profession.

A shift in the portrayal of engineering could be valuable when considering how to attract more women into the engineering profession (National Academy of Engineering, 2012). Despite efforts to reframe engineering in a more exciting and female‐friendly way (Giddens et al., 2008), studies investigating female interest in science and medicine over engineering often cite a preference among females for occupations focused on helping others (Miller, Rosser, Benigno, & Zieseniss, 2000). There exists a distinct female preference for occupations that engage people rather than mechanical artifacts (Miller et al., 2000). Industrial engineering, of all engineering disciplines, is noted to disproportionally attract more females because of its perceived focus on humans and society (Brawner, Camacho, Lord, Long, & Ohland, 2012).

This work draws on two constructs, person‐orientation (PO) and thing orientation (TO), to capture the divergent interests of students (Graziano, Habashi, Evangelou, & Ngambeki, 2012). PO concerns the preference for social engagement, while TO is the preference for working with objects. Limited work has comprehensively examined the difference in the two orientations in representative samples of engineering students and, a more elusive group to research, of practicing engineers. A review of the literature suggests there is a desire to improve the image of engineering as a socially engaged discipline that helps humanity, moving it toward a PO (National Academy of Engineering, 2008). The literature's assumption asserts that emphasizing the potential of engineering as a human‐centered endeavor will result in higher initial and prolonged interest in engineering. Research investigating engineering as a profession has found few examples of specific engineering disciplines considered to be person‐oriented (Diekman, Brown, Johnston, & Clark, 2010). The lack of social sensitivity may suggest engineering is a career choice better aligned to individuals with a TO rather than a PO.

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