Students' Perspective on the Purposes of Engineering Higher Education: A longitudinal qualitative case study of the U.S. and England

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Virginia Tech


University education across history and contexts aimed for a myriad of purposes, from the advancement of knowledge to educating citizens and contributing to the social good. With the rise of universities functioning in a market economy, and navigating higher education institutions' public role, some of the university purposes are constantly debated, and often without accounting for the students' perspectives.

The purpose of this qualitative multi-case study is to explore the students' perspectives on the purpose of enrolling in a higher education institution and obtaining an engineering higher education degree. Each case is focused on a higher education institution, for a total of four institutions across the U.S. and England. The embedded units of analysis focus on twenty (20) undergraduate chemical engineering students' narratives from the time they enroll in those institutions to the time they graduate to answer the following two main research questions:

RQ 1: What are the perspectives of undergraduate engineering students towards the purpose of higher education? RQ 2: How, if at all, do undergraduate engineering students' perspectives of the purpose of higher education change throughout their degree?

The Capabilities Approach is used as the main theoretical framing. The framework is concerned with the question of what a person is able to do and be. It also provides a perspective on thinking about the purposes of education in terms of instrumental, intrinsic, and social values.
Results show a variety of perspectives and reasons why students pursue an engineering degree, mainly expressed in terms of career-driven purposes and personal-driven purposes. Fulfilling being good at math and science, seeking a job for purposes beyond individualistic reasons, and personal growth were some of the common purposes mentioned by the students. In addition, more students than not maintained a fixed perspective throughout their undergraduate years. This research is set to address the problem of the neglect of the students' voices in the literature and to address the lack of research on longitudinal studies, higher education, and capabilities approach within the engineering education space.



Capabilities approach, higher education, qualitative case study, longitudinal engineering education