I've been trying to describe my research interests and motivations to a lot of academic folks lately; I'm not particularly satisfied with my ability to articulate things clearly and in an academically-grounded and scholarly-sounding manner yet (it's easy to do one or the other, but not both!) and so I'm chucking the current version out here. The terminology I'm trying to focus on is "discourse exposure."

By the way, I had an interesting conversation with Purdue's IRB just now; I'll update in a bit...

Engineering is a black box to those outside it – and to some extent, those inside. For those involved in an engineering project, the process of creation involves a rich and delightfully messy discourse, a conversation between teammates and technology, components and constraints. This conversation is situated in a particular context; one cannot learn "engineering conversation" through textbook memorization or reading university brochures any more than one can learn "Italian conversation" through vocabulary memorization or reading tourist guides.

However, for those not already involved in the creative process, that's the equivalent of what they're stuck with. The invisibility of “what engineers do” may lead to lower matriculation and transfer rates for undergraduate engineering majors, which leads directly to the graduation of fewer engineers. Furthermore, those who do graduate as engineers have few incentives to encourage or artifacts to support reflection on the nature of their actions and conversations. Rarely do we step back and ask questions such as “Do we unconsciously assume gender roles in our teams?” or “Do we remember that the design we're praising this week was the one we vehemently
disagreed with last month?”

Open source, hardware, and content communities represent a counterexample to this pattern. By making not just their final outputs but their intermediate revisions, design discussions, technical reviews, and essentially nearly all their conversational and technical artifacts available, freely-licensed, and fully-attributable online, they enable access to legitimate peripheral participation to a higher degree than most engineering projects and classrooms. Many researchers have studied the quality of open source output, the anthropology of open source communities, and the effects of using open source software in classrooms. However, there has been no investigation on the learning that happens in these communities.

What if we could identify the practices of transparent communication in open communities, understand the processes by which these discourse-exposing practices scaffold the learning of novices, and then transfer these practices and processes to undergraduate engineering education? What will happen when engineering educators start allowing ourselves and others to eavesdrop on our "ordinary" conversations, and what are the barriers and benefits to doing so?

The idea of "exposing discourse" in engineering education has implications for issues of access, because non-privileged groups (especially groups already underrepresented in engineering) don't get exposure to the "language" of engineering before they begin formal studies and are immediately expected to "speak" it fluently. It also touches on the notion of cross-disciplinary work; even within the realm of engineering, engineers from one discipline have little opportunity to "overhear" conversations from another engineering discipline (and thus intuit how to work successfully with those other engineers). Learners with speech/hearing/language disabilities and non-native speakers may also be aided by the capture of transient information in textual or other concrete artifact formats. Finally, there is potential for dialogue on open access and the culture of academia as it relates to transparency, publishing, and attribution.