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Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics

Advisor 1

Sheryl A. Sorby

Committee Member 1

Susan L. Amato-Henderson

Committee Member 2

Andrew R. Barnard

Committee Member 3

Leonard J. Bohman

Committee Member 4

Kedmon Hungwe


This study examines the practice of engineering as experienced through the undergraduate engineering capstone course. The findings in this research contribute to the knowledge of the capstone course as a culminating experience intended to provide students a valuable introduction to the real-world practice of engineering. Existing literature and research on the engineering capstone course, college to work transition, and early career engineering practices informed the methodologies and approaches used in this research as well as decisions in how to best analyze the data and interpret results.

Interviews from a total of forty-six engineering capstone students and twelve early career engineers provided a rich data set to explore. Subjects were interviewed using a set of questions that were designed to be semi-structured and open-ended in nature so as to elicit their perceptions of, and experiences with, the practice of engineering. The data and resulting findings are presented in three chapters, each of which is intended for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.

The first paper applies thematic analysis through the lens of Activity Theory to identify and examine the tensions and discrepancies that exist between the system of engineering education (specifically the capstone course), and the workplace system. Results indicate tensions exist most prominently in the Object, Rules and Community spaces of the activity systems.

The second paper applies a phenomenographic approach to examine the variation in the ways in which students experience the practice of engineering through their capstone course/project. Results yielded four quantitatively different ways (i.e. categories of description) in which the students experienced engineering. These categories relate to form a two-dimensional outcome space that describes a hierarchical relationship between them. The engineering experienced through capstone ranged from a largely individual activity that involved non value-added tools and processes to a highly interdependent activity where the tools and resources were integral to achieving a successful outcome.

Finally, the third paper utilizes thematic analysis to examine the similarities and differences between the practice of engineering, as experienced by capstone courses as compared to that of early career engineers in the workplace. Results revealed a number of key themes that represented similarities and differences of interest such as the importance of communication in performing engineering work (a prevalent similarity) to the level of autonomy afforded is the use of tools and processes (a prevalent difference).

All three explorations align with recent literature and suggest key areas of opportunity for modification and even innovation within the capstone program and/or the process of transitioning to the workplace.