Mentoring in Engineering Capstone Design Courses: Beliefs and Practices across Disciplines

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Virginia Tech


Capstone courses provide senior students in engineering with a culminating experiential learning environment, allowing them to apply the knowledge they have developed throughout their undergraduate education. Through anecdotal descriptions of the course, faculty roles have been classified as mentoring. Yet, there have been few systematic and empirical studies that aid in the exploration of the pedagogy and its effectiveness. This study used Kram's model of mentoring as a lens to explore mentoring in the capstone course more systematically. In addition, the learning theories that support project-based learning provided additional understanding into the functions and practices that faculty mentors use to support the students' career and psychosocial development.

This study used a sequential mixed methods design to explore the prominent mentoring functions seen in engineering capstone courses, identify the factors related to those mentoring functions, and analyze how the functions are related to perceived learning outcomes. Data collection included a survey of 491 capstone faculty, interviews of 25 survey respondents using the critical decision method, and a survey of 139 students of the interviewees. Quantitative data analysis included the calculation of descriptive statistics for the faculty and student survey item responses as well as a correlation analyses between the items representing mentoring functions and items representing factors of mentoring. Qualitative analysis involved a phenomenological analysis of the data through the coding of interview responses using Kram's mentoring functions as a framework.

Findings identified the mentoring practices associated with the career development and psychosocial functions. Additional findings indicated that: 1) challenging assignments, protection, and acceptance-and-confirmation are the dominant functions, 2) faculty background is a potential important factor of mentoring, whereas institutional and department demographics are negligible, and 3) most learning outcomes are associated with challenging assignments, with the exception of ethical understanding, which is developed through coaching, counseling, and role modeling.

The findings resulted in the development of a model of capstone mentoring. The model provides a holistic, research-based view of the role that faculty assume when mentoring capstone students. While this study did not systematically prove the model's effect on student learning, positive effects are supported by both student self-reports and learning theories associated with project-based learning. As such, the model can be used as a general guide for the development of pedagogical skills and assessment of teaching practices in project-based capstone courses.



Engineering, Pedagogy, Design, Mentoring