A case study of an undergraduate engineering peer tutoring group: An investigation of the structure of a community of practice and the value members gain from participation

Tameka Sharona Clarke Douglas, Purdue University


Shaping the Future, the 1996 report to the National Science Foundation (NSF), called for the research community to identify and characterize practical solutions for developing “supportive” and “excellent” learning experiences for all students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (SME). The recommendation was that we “start with the student's experience.” (George, et al., 1996a, p. 8).^ The objective of this study was to examine the structure and value of a community of practice within an engineering education context from the perspective of the experiences of the members participating in the community of practice. The case for this dissertation study was a group of undergraduate engineering students called the Newton Scholars. Students continue on as Newton Scholars until they graduate. Newton scholars have a responsibility to provide a minimum of five hours of services per week to the undergraduate engineering student body. Accordingly, the research questions were: (1) How are the elements of the community of practice structure represented within the Newton Scholar group? (2) What are the short-term and long-term values that members of this group associate with their participation in this group?^ The results showed that the Newton Scholars described the three elements of the structure of a community of practice – domain, community and practice. Each element was described as having two aspects. One aspect related to achieving the goal of the community and the other aspect related to attainment of the member’s personal goal(s). Secondly, the Newton Scholars gained value from participating in the Newton Scholar community of practice. The short-term values were sense of belonging and meaningful participation and the long term value of forum for expanding skills and expertise.^ The findings of this study provide evidence to support Wenger and his colleagues’ propositions (2002) that the elements – domain, community, and practice – are part of the basic structure of a community of practice and make more concrete how the elements within the structure are represented. The findings of this study bring the research community a step closer to a fuller understanding of concept of communities of practice and its successful application in an engineering education context.^




Ruth Streveler, Purdue University, Karl Smith, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Engineering, General|Education, Higher

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