Collaborative Research: From School to Work: Understanding the Transition from Capstone Design to Industry
This paper describes a newly initiated study to explore students’ transitions from capstone design courses into engineering workplaces. Numerous studies show gaps between school and work with respect to engineering practice, including a recent American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) study identifying weaknesses such as practical experience, project management, problem-solving, and design. Equally important, industry supervisors identified such gaps more frequently than early career engineers or department heads. Such misalignment poses a serious challenge to the professional formation of engineers within the academy.
Capstone courses are key opportunities to bridge these gaps. These courses seek to respond to industry, and faculty view them as vehicles to help students synthesize prior coursework and engage in real-world projects, often in ways that are resource intensive. Yet skill gaps persist, and few if any studies have examined the effectiveness of capstone courses in the context of the transition from school to work. Most research focuses on course structure, pedagogy, assessment, and end-of-course outcomes. To address this gap, we draw on Wenger's concept of communities of practice to study the experiences of individuals as they move from capstone courses into workplaces. Our project will explore how and to what extent capstone design courses prepare students to enter communities of practice in engineering workplaces, using 4 research questions:
RQ1: What skills, practices, and attitudes fostered through the capstone experience do individuals draw on or apply in their early work experiences?
RQ2: What differences do individuals identify between their capstone design and early work experiences, and how do those differences help or hinder their school-to-work transition?
RQ3: What specific pedagogical practices or aspects of the capstone course do students identify as helping or hindering their transition?
RQ4: In what ways do individuals perceive themselves to be underprepared in their early work experiences?
To address these questions, we are conducting a multi-case study of 4 sites: mechanical engineering programs at 3 separate universities and a general engineering program at a 4th university as a comparator. Data will include capstone exit interviews, followed by weekly surveys during the first 3 months of work to capture transitional experiences. Finally interviews will be conducted at 3, 6, and 12 month intervals to explore how students' capstone experiences inform their transition to work.
In this paper, we will describe the research frameworks and methods and provide results from our baseline data collection to explore students’ goals, interests, and expectations as they enter their capstone courses.
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