Early-career professionals on engineering skills, knowledge, and context

Project No.
PI Name
Cynthia Atman
University of Washington

Abstract 1

Early-career professionals on engineering skills, knowledge, and context

Presentation Type
Cynthia J. Atman, University of Washington Ken Yasuhara, University of Washington Jennifer Turns, University of Washington


Despite recent improvements, there are still large gaps between the academic preparation of engineers and their actual preparedness for work in the increasingly fluid field of engineering. These gaps affect both the decisions undergraduates make regarding whether to choose an engineering career, as well as the quality of the U.S. engineering workforce. This work explores the gaps between what engineers learn in the classroom and what they experience in the workplace.


The overarching goal of the proposed work is to inform improvements in the education of engineers at colleges and universities to facilitate the transition for engineering undergraduates to become successful, agile engineering career professionals who are able to work on contemporary grand-challenge engineering problems.


The overall research project utilized multiple research methods in a study of early-career professionals (ECPs), five years after graduating with bachelorメs degrees in engineering from four U.S. institutions. The study enabled comparison of ECPs in the engineering and non-engineering workforces. To some extent, we are also able to compare ECPs with engineering undergraduates in a related study. The results presented in this poster include survey data from ECPs who responded to questions about the activities they engaged in as practicing professionals. Respondents were asked how much they engaged with the aspects of engineering (as represented by ABET learning outcomes), as well as contextual issues of engineering problems.


In our study, we asked ECPs to rate the importance of 20 skills/knowledge items directly based on ABET student outcomes (Criterion 3) and key outcomes described in the National Academy of Engineering�s Engineer of 2020 report. ECPs in both the engineering and non-engineering workforce groups tended toward high importance ratings for certain items, including problem solving, communication, analytical skills, and teamwork. Engineering ECPs gave higher importance ratings than non-engineering ECPs did to items such as science, math, design, and environmental context. Engineering ECPs responses were similar to those of fourth-year undergraduates in an earlier study. Both groups ascribed high importance to problem solving, communication, teamwork, engineering analysis, and ethics, and low importance to global/societal context. In response to questions about how frequently they consider 13 specific aspects of engineering problem context in their work, ECPs (both engineering and non-engineering) reported frequent consideration of users, organizational (e.g., company) context, systems-level issues, and health/safety, and less frequent consideration of aspects like natural environment and political context.

Broader Impacts

These findings reinforce the need to teach undergraduates about not only the importance of incorporating issues of context into their problem solving, but also to teach them practical methods to incorporate such issues. In the poster, we will present several methods we have developed and tested to teach issues of context. In addition, we will present a set of educational approaches to help undergraduate engineers to develop the skill of reflection that will help them continue to learn from their experiences as they progress in their profession.

Unexpected Challenges

(no major, unexpected challenges)


Winters, K. E., Brunhaver, S. R., Chen, H. L., Yasuhara, K., & Sheppard, S. (2013). From freshman engineering students to practicing professionals: Changes in beliefs about important skills over time. Proceedings of ASEE.

Yasuhara, K. & Atman, C. J. (2014). Early-career professionals on engineering skills, knowledge, and context (CELT Technical Report 14-04). Seattle, WA: Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching, University of Washington.

Sheppard, S., Matusovich, H. M., Atman, C., Streveler, R. A., & Miller, R. L. (2011). Work in progress - Engineering Pathways Study: The college-career transition. Proceedings of FIE.