Students in engineering master’s degree programs come from a wide range of backgrounds and have diverse levels of experience within the field of engineering. Some, who we term “returners”, have extensive work experience between their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Others, “direct pathway” students, have less professional work experience and in some cases, none at all. Both returners and direct pathway students are in class together, and the connection between work experience, course content, and student learning has not been extensively studied.
In this study, we surveyed both returners and direct pathway students in over 40 engineering master’s degree programs in the United States, with 89 participants being returners and 211 direct pathway students. This research focused on the ways in which students perceived how their past work experience had influenced their learning, both in terms of course content and in their general approach, in order to understand whether and in what ways their real-world experiences had contributed to their understanding of the content. Specifically, we asked these questions:
• How do you think your work experience (including any internships and co-op experience) has contributed to your success in your coursework?
• How do you think your work experience (including any internships and co-op experience) has influenced or impacted your approach to learning in general?
The data from these open response questions was analyzed using open coding, in order to allow themes to emerge. A variety of themes were seen, with some of them equally visible in both returners and direct pathway students and others weighted more heavily towards one group. Notably, the contributions of work experiences to coursework and the ability to understand content are different for those who have spent at least five years in the field than for those who have had less than five years. Students who had practical experience in industry repeatedly cited the immediacy of coursework to specific applications. Others said that they went back to school to better understand the theory behind specific engineering principles. Working in the field helps solidify theoretical understanding. Both groups acknowledged the importance of so-called “soft skills,” the use of social and emotional intelligences in communicating with fellow workers. Returners were more focused on career-related goals or ways of changing their careers, while direct pathway students find the application of undergraduate work to their master’s degree requirements and the lifestyle of an engineer to be drivers in their pursuit of the master’s in engineering degree.
Students’ knowledge construction and mental models were influenced by whether they have spent time in industry. Those with more experience understood the coursework through the lens of application more readily, and their industry experience contributed to their understanding of the enterprise and how their learning fits within it. Students with less industry experience do not as easily see connections between applications and coursework, and may need more examples to help them make those connections.
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