David F. Radcliffe: Pioneering the “other space”

David RadcliffeDavid Radcliffe has served as a scholar and innovator in that “other space” of engineering design and practice for nearly 40 years across two continents (Australia and the U.S.). He currently serves as Head of Engineering Education and Epistemology Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dr. Radcliffe’s current scholarly pursuits include exploring the career trajectories of graduate students and faculty in the field, as well as the processes through which industry engineers-in-practice continue to learn throughout their careers. His administrative passions center on the development and success of engineering education faculty who may one day constitute a new cadre of “pioneers.”

The profile below was authored by Wayne J. Hilson, Jr., Indiana University, based on an interview with Dr. Radcliffe in 2014.

David F. Radcliffe
Kamyar Haghighi Head of Engineering Education and Epistemology Professor of Engineering Education
Purdue University

Ph.D., Bioengineering, Strathclyde University (Scotland), 1978
M.S., Mechanical Engineering, University of Queensland (Australia), 1974
B.S., Mechanical Engineering, University of Queensland (Australia), 1972

Working in the design space

I’ve always taught in the design space, doing class innovations and new things back in the 1980s. I did practice-based research through the 1980s and into the early ‘90s during my time at the University of Queensland, and did a lot of work with small manufacturing companies. So I wasn’t sitting in the lab doing regular technical stuff; I was always doing things that were more about understanding the practice of engineering.

A number of people doing engineering education have come from or have connection into design research or teaching design, and I think that speaks to a design mentality. as opposed to more of an analytical mentality, meaning that you’re oriented toward trying to come up with new ideas and create new things. Rather than just understanding the world that is, I was imagining the world that might be. The scholarship of engineering education gave some legitimacy and I could then move more formally into a place that I had probably always been in but didn’t have a name for it. Its origins really go back to a faculty member that I had as an undergraduate who was doing innovative things, using slide projectors with tape recorders attached to them, in addition to introducing different sorts of self-guided learning modules back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. So I was inspired by some of those things and I’ve always been interested in doing things other ways. Even in my pre-work, going back to these mentors as an undergraduate, this “design thing,” I think is really important. It’s a different mindset too, as opposed to traditional faculty.

The importance of context

I’ve always been innovating and trying new things, even as a regular faculty member at the University of Queensland, but I started getting more serious about it around the early 1990s. The field started to get some recognition in Australia in terms of being able to get direct funding to do this type of work. It’s important to understand the context from which I developed as a researcher. Coming out of the Australian context where engineering education was always fairly kind of “hands-on,” and although we went through the engineering science revolution when I was a student in the 1960s and ‘70s, we never lost design from the curriculum. Conversely, in the United States, design basically disappeared until the 1990s when the concept of capstone design began to come back. Australia never lost it. In a typical mechanical engineering program, for example, my original undergraduate discipline, there was always a second-year, third-year, and fourth-year level design course. The reason why I developed the way I did, and was probably in a position to come to Purdue as a relatively senior person in the engineering education field, was because I came from another jurisdiction (Australia) which had tolerated slightly stranger academic careers to exist – more so than I think happens in the U.S. In general, it can be very hard to succeed in this system if you follow a non-conventional career pathway — to be “other.”

A pivotal point for me was the sabbatical I spent at Stanford University in 1991-92. There I got connected with the Design Division of Mechanical Engineering, out of which grew the d-School, and in particular, worked with Larry Leifer. I learned a lot by teaching a graduate class at Stanford University with Bernie Roth during that sabbatical and also got connected to engineering education innovation through the NSF Synthesis Coalition.

When then went back to Australia, I received funding for two large projects called Contextual Experiences in Concurrent Engineering Learning (CECEL) and a Manufacturing and Design Lab (MAD-Lab). In 1994, I received a National Teaching Fellowship to come back to the USA for an extended period, traveling around looking at the Coalition program generally, but specifically, the Synthesis Coalition and was able to report back to Australia about those things. It was during this extended stay in 1994-95 that I got to meet some other people playing in this “space” including Cindy Atman and some others.

Those series of events, from 1991 through 1995, were the pivot that helped me to explicitly turn my scholarly interests to design engineering and engineering education officially; to publicly declare my real research interests. Having seen the Coalitions that were funded in the U.S., that gave some legitimacy to the thing and I was able to take advantage of granting agencies in Australia that were open to supporting scholarship, innovation, and new ideas around teaching and learning.

Drawing on theory

Transitioning into the scholarship of engineering education required me to get acquainted with the literature, with theories about learning. So that’s the transformation that started to happen through the 1990s. In fact, one of the reasons why I got one of the early grants, the one that had to do with contextual experiences, was because I actually used Kolb’s model as a framework in addition to some other bits of theory in there. It really impressed the reviewers that an engineer actually was starting to make these types of connections, because most of the grant applications just said, “Give me some money and I’ll go do this thing in this new way.” Now you have scholars moving from being a tinkerer and a sort of, “Let’s try something,” to “Let’s look at the literature, and let’s understand what’s gone before and build on what’s already known,” or, “Let’s study what we’ve actually done against some theoretical framework or conceptual viewpoint and then analyze what goes on.”

There are some unfortunate tensions in the wider engineering education community between those people who would be innovators and those that might be seen as researchers, and that somehow they’re different and in competition. There is a perception that journals only take papers from researchers, while there are those who are left to ask, “What about me?” To be a scholarly innovator, you still need to understand the literature even if you’re not contributing new knowledge to the knowledge base. I think that for any individual scholar, but also for the wider engineering education community, it’s important to understand the education part. Fortunately, my own transition wasn’t an issue because I realized that understanding was necessary. I’ve worked with anthropologists as well as scholars in the phenomenography area. It’s about having respect for people from other traditions with which we collaborate. That’s a real issue still for some people; you just don’t go and read a book on education and say, “I’m going to do an educational study.” You’ve got to respect the research traditions that we’re drawing upon.

Engineering education as a lifelong pursuit

One of the areas where I sort of became kind of known, although I didn’t totally realize it at the time, started in the late 1980s, looking at engineering students and their design techniques. I began writing some of that out, and it was only in the early 1990s when I began to visit some of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conferences, where I’d turn up somewhere and people would be like, “Oh, here’s the guy who wrote those papers,” and I didn’t realize they were reading my papers or drawing on them. So having come from that design research space, I began looking at education, specifically education for students around engineering design.

A lot of my work has been in that design and industry engineering practice space. I’m asking, “What is the nature of engineering as a profession?” Because to me that’s the heart of engineering education. If you don’t know what it is that engineers really do and how they do it, how can you design an engineering education system? My work with graduate students through the 1990s and into the 2000s centered on empirical research studies of how engineering is done in industry. My view of engineering education is that it’s not just what happens in college; it’s also about pre-college experiences. I was interested in how people discover engineering, from parents to entire communities. How do students learn it, what are the issues around this, how do faculty develop careers, and how do industry people in practice continue to learn?

A third area is the work I’ve done in my current role as Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue. One of the core roles of the head, along with colleagues, is to mentor junior faculty as they go up to get promoted and tenured, and then help mid-career people to get promoted to full professor. Recently, I’ve focused on getting that group of people moved through the academic system, getting it established in the minds of traditional discipline-based engineering faculty here that engineering education is a new research area where people do scholarly work, get grants and do the usual things. Helping others to understand that engineering education is a field of scholarship and seeing careers develop and mature is challenging work. Actually helping in whatever little part I have, to get this community really established in an academic unit in a conventional university, has given me the greatest satisfaction.

Growth, development and sustainability

In whatever work you do or the people you work with, does that thing become sustainable at some point so that the impact is lasting and beyond the initial efforts. Many people who enter the field – including myself – start off as what would be called a sort of “Lone Ranger,” or the “Lone Inventor.” You’re going to innovate in this class and do this cool thing, but then if you went away that wouldn’t last because of the nature of the system. So you have to work in ways that will produce lasting change; in other words, behaviors will change, things will be done differently, people will do things differently, and that takes real sustained effort and time. It takes time to bring other people on board and for ideas to take hold, to help others become established in their careers so when they are wherever they are, their impact will continue. So it’s really about embedding the idea, so it’s not just, “Here’s a great idea, here is some research, I’ll write it up, and I’ll write a paper.” It’s about how we translate; how we achieve a change in the way people do things based on that.

For those of us continuously working to translate engineering education research to practice working with established faculty and administrators, it’s not about us telling them how to do things, but more about meeting faculty from traditional engineering disciplines where they are. A lot of faculty have their own issues or frustrations about classes and are not satisfied with what’s going on, so how we connect is more about asking, “What are your issues around your work regarding teaching and learning?” And that could include the mentoring of graduate students and helping them to become familiar with proven, evidence-based ways that could make their work lives easier, better, leading to greater satisfaction as teachers and mentors. That’s how you get the more permanent change, to be an agent, a catalyst to help other people who have a need, no matter if they can articulate that need, rather than ramming it down their throat. It’s very much a subtle type of enabling, scaffolding, catalyzing, and standing alongside rather than shouting from the rooftops and forcing people to do something. The leadership necessary to enact this type of sustainable change begins with the self. If one is really self-aware and has a firm understanding to become a truly reflective practitioner who really understands what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, then you have a firm foundation from which to then work with and help others.

Overall, I believe the field would do well to explore in greater depth two relatively untapped areas: 1) faculty careers and the development of careers of graduate students, and 2) learning in industry and careers in industry. Education at the college level and K-12 is a truly complex system, and understanding some of those broader systemic things around change is important. It’s about shifting the scale from micro-studies about what happens when students learn difficult concepts, to what are faculty careers and their trajectories like and how do these systems change at a time when there’s a lot of pressure on higher education, especially giving the rising the costs. We need to move beyond rhetoric about MOOCs and those sorts of things and truly get at what are the systemic things. It’s looking at a larger scale of things.

Engineering education to me is about learning. It’s about how people learn, how people help others to learn, develop and operate, and what the systems are in which they operate. We need to explore the construct of engineering lifetime learning/education, whether as a scholar in the academy or a practitioner in industry, beyond mere rhetoric.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Radcliffe notes that starting his career in Australia, where “slightly stranger academic careers” were more tolerated, allowed his career to develop differently than it might have in the U.S. Do you agree that the climate in the U.S. is less tolerant of “strange” academic careers? Has the climate in your setting changed in any ways during the course of your career?
  • What types of challenges have you faced in translating engineering education research into practice? Or what challenges have you seen colleagues face? What strategies have been helpful in overcoming those challenges?

Photo provided by Dr. Radcliffe.