Engineering and Physics Faculty Research and Publications


Making Sense of Design: A Thematic Analysis of Alumni Perspectives

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Making Sense of Design: A Thematic Analysis of Alumni Experiences of Design in SLPX Design is a topic of significant interest among engineering education researchers. In efforts to identify how students learn design, several significant engineering education studies have discussed how students enact design behavior, how they construe their understandings of design, and how they develop in their design ways of thinking and doing. While the motivations for these studies are diverse, many address a large and common question confronting engineering education – how do we prepare twenty-first century engineers to design effective solutions for complex problems? In practice, the response to this overarching question has taken many forms in engineering education. Often, curricula constrain the time of the design experience to fit within the academic calendar and the context to be simulated rather than authentic. In contrast, a multidisciplinary, service-learning program at University X (SLPX) engages students in design experiences within an authentic context and extends over multiple semesters. Several in engineering education have championed SLPX and similar programs for providing such an authentic design experience, but no prior studies have investigated how such experiences shape the student’s design knowledge, ability, and identity after graduation. In other words, how do alumni of SLPX make sense of their experiences in the program in light of their design experiences in industry? How do these early-career engineers understand and enact design from their experiences in SLPX? This paper presents the findings of a thematic analysis related to how alumni connect their design experiences in SLPX to their design experiences in industry. Further, this paper presents findings focused on the alumni’s design experience and is part of from a larger embedded, sequential mixed-methods study on the overall alumni experience and the impact of the SLPX. A diverse range of alumni (n = 27) were purposively sampled from participants of a previous survey (n = 528). Our interview protocol was informed by both the survey responses of alumni and the objectives of this larger investigation. We approached the analysis phase of this study with a rigorous thematic analysis that involved multiple angles and iterations of studying the participants’ interview transcripts. Through this analysis, we have seen the design theme to be quite pervasive throughout the participants’ accounts. The alumni communicate transference of their design experiences in SLPX to their current practice, albeit to varying degrees and in nuanced ways. The objective of this paper, then, is to make visible how authentic design experiences, such as SLPX, affect alumni in their design ability and understanding in their careers. We discuss the multiple and also common ways that alumni understand and enact design because of their experiences in SLPX. We organize these findings and present them in detail, grounding them in literature from design studies and engineering education and extending scholarship in these areas. Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for engineering design educators.


This paper was presented at the 2013 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition held June 23-26, 2013.

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American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)