Concepts are ubiquitous in engineering education in many forms. Concepts at their core definition imply a sanitized transferable entity, that transcends context. However, theoretical perspectives of situated cognition suggest that concepts may not be the fundamental organizing schema for practitioners. Rather, project constraints and contexts may be an alternative lens for how engineers organize their knowledge. Engineering educators have developed multiple concept inventories that are widely used to assess student learning and frequently have discussions about the importance of knowing the concepts. Academic artifacts such as textbooks are normally organized around engineering concepts. Although there is comfort in utilizing concepts as the organizing framework for engineering education, substantial evidence from multiple perspectives suggests that it may not be optimal for student learning or for preparation for engineering practice. This research implemented two methodologies to examine the role of concepts in engineering practice. In the first approach, concept inventory responses from practicing civil engineers were gathered and compared to student responses. Students performed better than practicing engineers on statics, fluid mechanics, and mechanics of materials concept inventory questions. In the second approach, the use of concepts in the design of a roundabout in civil engineering practice was studied. Concepts in engineering practice related to roundabout design do not have static abstracted representations, but are continuously negotiated, abstracted, and represented in multiple forms. Results suggest that explicit and implicit organization of concepts in engineering education may not be ideal for learning or preparation for the engineering workplace.
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