Grappling with methodologies in educational research: science and engineering educators finding their way



Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

Nova Science Publishers


University of Cape Town

Science and Engineering faculties at South African tertiary institutions have seen dramatic changes since the 1980’s due to a changing student body as a result of equity and redress measures. There has also been an increasing interest in educational research that might help improve student learning. Some of these researchers are disciplinary experts taking an interest in teaching and learning, while others have moved from undergraduate scientific work to postgraduate educational qualifications. Many of these researchers have no foundations in social science research. As a result much of the research produced by this group tends to unproblematically apply the ‘scientific method’ to problems in the social sciences. As authors of this chapter, we fit the above description, and describe our journeys in developing more appropriate and critical ways of conducting research in these complex and changing higher education contexts. Our initial research efforts were conducted in largely positivist frames. While there were many opportunities to develop (and publish) within this framework, we became increasingly aware that this framework offered superficial understandings of the student experience and failed to engage with broader societal issues. Interpretivist and critical perspectives appeared to offer more productive frames within which to work, yet we struggled to make sense of and gain access to these discourses. In this chapter we analyse and describe the experiences gained from two different research projects we have pursued during the 1990’s. The first theme concerns issues around gender and engineering education, and began with a narrow focus on why women choose to study engineering and shifted to grappling more critically with notions of gender and race. The second theme concerns students’ experiences of learning, initially exploring the approaches to learning framework and in later work responding more critically to the dominant theories in this area. Some of the questions which we address include: What are the methodological challenges involved in shifting to a more interpretive and critical paradigm? Is critical theory a useful framework for researching tertiary science and engineering education?