Document Type

Theses, Ph.D


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence


5.3 EDUCATIONAL SCIENCES, *pedagogy, 5.9 OTHER SOCIAL SCIENCES, Social sciences, Other social sciences

Publication Details

This is a PhD Thesis entitled "A Phenomenographic Study of Academics Teaching on Engineering Programmes in Ireland: Conceptions of Professional Skills and Approaches to Teaching Professional Skills"

Supervisor: Professor Brian Bowe, Head of Academic Affairs and Assistant Registrar, Technological University, Dublin


Engineers play a central role in addressing the challenges which face society. However, the influence of globalisation, disruptive technological change and socially complex problems will greatly affect the way engineers work in the future.

As a result, there have been calls to embrace transformational change in engineering education, yet the literature reveals that many reform efforts have fallen short. Industry and society will therefore continue to look to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to better prepare engineering graduates with the new skills needed to face the challenges of the future. Notwithstanding the critical and valued role that technical engineering subjects have within an engineering programme, the literature suggests that there is a need for a greater focus on the development of Professional Skills.

A key factor in the development of Professional Skills in engineering students lies in the interaction with academics. The values and actions of the academics with whom they interact, all have a part to play in how a student understands and values the various skills they learn. Hence, focusing on academics and their approaches to teaching professional skills forms a basis for supporting reform in engineering education. However, fundamental changes to how academics teach professional skills may only result from changes to their conceptions of what professional skills are. Thus, it is critical to not only understand how academics teach professional skills, but to understand their conceptions of professional skills and how this influences their teaching approaches. This is a gap in the current literature yet is a fundamental prerequisite for supporting reform in academic practice and thus transformational change in engineering education.

This PhD study uses phenomenography to shed light on academics’ experiences in regard to professional skills, with three specific objectives. The first is to better understand the variation in academic conceptions of what is meant by “professional skills”. The second examines the variation in academics’ approaches to teaching professional skills. Finally, the study considers if relationships exist between these two factors, how differing conceptions may influence the approaches to teaching and the implications of these relationships for practice and policy.

The outcome of this study provides a framework for describing the phenomenon of Professional Skills in an engineering context. Academics revealed their Conceptions of Professional Skills in six ways: Communication Skills, Technical Skills, Enabling Skills, A Combination of Skills, Interpersonal Behaviours and Acting Professionally. Academics in this study also described five Approaches to Teaching Professional Skills: Transmitting Knowledge, Practicing, Coaching, Mirror Industry Environment and Role Modelling. Finally, the findings show that there is a relationship between academics’ approaches to teaching professional skills and their conceptions of what professional skills are. All outcomes are contextual to academics teaching on engineering programmes in Ireland.

This overall framework can be used in two ways. Firstly, from a top-down approach: to provide evidence for policy decisions, such as curriculum design and accreditation criteria to encourage and enhance the development of professional skills in engineering students. Policies which are multi-layered and relevant to all academic staff are more likely to be successfully implemented. Secondly, the findings can also be used in a bottom up approach: as a learning and teaching resource for engineering academics. The outcomes allow academics to reflect on their own teaching approaches and expose them to a more powerful understanding of the ways in which they can help develop professional skills in engineering students.

This study aims to give insights into the engineering academic community in Ireland and the outputs can ultimately be used to increase opportunities for engineering students to develop professional skills, resulting in a better prepared engineering graduate who can both face into and overcome the challenges of the future.