A Phenomenographic Investigation of the Ways Engineering Students Experience Innovation

Nicholas David Fila, Purdue University


Innovation has become an important phenomenon in engineering and engineering education. By developing novel, feasible, viable, and valued solutions to complex technical and human problems, engineers support the economic competitiveness of organizations, make a difference in the lives of users and other stakeholders, drive societal and scientific progress, and obtain key personal benefits. Innovation is also a complex phenomenon. It occurs across a variety of contexts and domains, encompasses numerous phases and activities, and requires unique competency profiles. Despite this complexity, many studies in engineering education focus on specific aspects (e.g., engineering students’ abilities to generate original concepts during idea generation), and we still know little about the variety of ways engineering students approach and understand innovation. This study addresses that gap by asking: 1. What are the qualitatively different ways engineering students experience innovation during their engineering projects? 2. What are the structural relationships between the ways engineering students experience innovation? This study utilized phenomenography, a qualitative research method, to explore the above research questions. Thirty-three engineering students were recruited to ensure thorough coverage along four factors suggested by the literature to support differences related to innovation: engineering project experience, academic major, year in school, and gender. Each participant completed a 1–2 hour, semi-structured interview that focused on experiences with and conceptions of innovation. Whole transcripts were analyzed using an eight-stage, iterative, and comparative approach meant to identify a limited number of categories of description (composite ways of experiencing innovation comprised of the experiences of several participants), and the structural relationships between these categories. Phenomenographic analysis revealed eight categories of description that were structured in a semi-hierarchical, two-dimensional outcome space. The first four categories demonstrated a progression toward greater comprehensiveness in both process and focus dimensions. In the process dimension, subsequent categories added increasingly preliminary innovation phases: idea realization, idea generation, problem scoping, and problem finding. In the focus dimension, subsequent categories added key areas engineers considered during innovation: technical, human, and enterprise. The final four categories each incorporated all previous process phases and focus areas, but prioritized different focus areas in sophisticated ways and acknowledged a macro-iterative cycle, i.e., an understanding of how the processes within a single innovation project built upon and contributed to past and future innovation projects. These results demonstrate important differences between engineering students and suggest how they may come to experience innovation in increasingly comprehensive ways. A framework based on the results can be used by educators and researchers to support more robust educational offerings and nuanced research designs that reflect these differences.




Purzer, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Engineering|Science education

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