The relationship between specialized disciplinary knowledge and its application in the world: A case study in engineering design

Nicky Wolmarans


Traditionally, professional education has been about the acquisition of a body of knowledge that graduates are expected to ‘apply’ in their professional practice after graduation. In this chapter I argue that a model of professions as the application of disciplinary knowledge is inadequate because it fails to take into account the complexity of the ‘real world’ to which the knowledge is applied. This in turn has led to curriculum design choices that fail to prepare graduates to work dialectically between the complexity of specialized disciplinary knowledge and the complexity of the world in which it is employed.

Engineering provides a rich case study. It is a profession that has positioned itself as a science-based discipline, founded on a canon of well-defined disciplinary subjects. Engineering curricula have tended to focus on the transmission and acquisition of scientific concepts and the relations between concepts, culminating in a final ‘capstone’ design project. This capstone design project is intended to integrate the specialized disciplinary knowledge acquired throughout the curriculum for application in a single ‘real world’ project. Most projects are set up to mimic the sorts of projects that engineering graduates are likely to encounter in professional practice (Froyd et at. 2012, Harris et al. 1994).They are intended to bridge the gap between engineering science and engineering practice. However, many students lack the skills to design when confronted with these design projects for the first time, even when they have successfully completed their engineering science courses (see Kotta 2011 for a detailed study of students’ experiences of senior design projects).

Over the last century of engineering education reform (Froyd et al. 2012, Grinter 1955, Mann 1918), employers have been calling for improved interpersonal and enabling skills, a strong foundation in the fundamental sciences, and the centrality of design in the curriculum. Recent studies of employer perceptions of graduate engineers report an improvement in, for example, teamwork, communication skills and management compared to the past 0. King 2007, R. King 2008). However, many engineering graduates still appear to be unable to apply scientific knowledge to solve professional problems; as J. King (2007: 7) reports:

Although industry is generally satisfied with the current quality of graduate engineers it regards the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to real industrial problems as the single most desirable attribute in new recruits. But this ability has become rarer in recent years

In this chapter I address the question of what it means to ‘apply theoretical knowledge’ to ‘real industrial problems’ emergent from the complexity of the world. Using engineering design projects in the curriculum as a proxy for real professional problems, I present an analysis of the relationship between material artifacts and the abstract concepts used to analyze and mathematically model them for the purpose of design. The chapter draws on part of a larger PhD study (Wolmarans 2017a) in which 17 engineering design projects located three engineering streams where investigated. Only two of the projects are presented here, both introductory design projects. One is the first project in a sequence of civil engineering projects, the other is the first project in a sequence of structural engineering projects. A comparison of the two projects shows that different ways of simplifying ‘real’ projects for the purpose of learning have vastly different effects on the nature of the required reasoning.

I bring together concepts from the Semantics and Specialization dimensions of Legitimation Code Theory (Maton 2013, 2014, 2020), because of their capacity when integrated to analyze relationships between objects of knowledge and knowledge of objects. The concept of semantic gravity provides a lens to analyze the significance of knowledge of the object of design, while the concept of semantic density provides a lens to analyze the complexity of the reasoning. By coding the knowledge requirements of each step in the design thinking process, I am able to show shifts between knowledge of complex things (using the concept of antic relations) and knowledge of complex theoretical concepts (using the concept of discursive relations) .The analysis contributes to building a more robust model of professional reasoning which has implications for learning. The study provides insight into the limitations of certain types of tasks when they constrain the complexity of thinking about the ‘things’ being analyzed. In short, privileging specialized knowledge over knowledge of objects effectively distorts the complex dialectical relations involved in professional reasoning. Although the case presented in this chapter is that of engineering, these findings have implications for a range of different professions.

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