Engineering College Students’ Soft Skills Learning

Subject: Education
Pages: 7
Words: 1997
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: PhD

Introduction

This chapter explores the methodology used to accomplish the project. The project aimed to determine what new engineering graduates, engineering managers, and professional recruiters think is lacking from the engineering curriculum from a non-technical point of view. It also explains the type of participants chosen, the mode of data collection, and the procedures followed. Further, the chapter also demonstrates the trustworthiness of data obtained and how ethical concerns were handled. Moreover, the chapter also illustrates the quality of data to be analyzed, the method of data analysis chosen, and the instruments of data analysis used. The methodology design was qualitative, and the data was collected from respondents using telephone interviews. Recent engineering graduates, managers, and professionals involved in the recruitment exercise were chosen to participate in the study as they are the ones who understand the problem and how it can be resolved. In this case, smaller and more specific groups related to engineering were chosen. The current study aimed to identify specific sets of soft skills needed by engineering graduates. The data collected led to the conclusions and recommendations made in this paper.

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Methodology selected

This study utilized a qualitative research methodology to find out the specific set of soft skills that engineering graduates need. A qualitative research method was chosen since the study was aimed at obtaining as much detailed information from several different perspectives as possible. The method was also chosen because it intended to reveal ‘why’ and ‘how’ certain situations came to be. One of the specific questions that the study intended to address is: what soft skills were taught at your school of engineering? This question was designed this way so as not to be leading but to go straight to the heart of the problem. The sub-question that followed was: How were these skills taught? For those who stated that there had been no soft skills taught, the sub-question addressed to them was different: What soft skills do you think would have been helpful to you in the job market? This question was aimed at identifying useful skills that need to be introduced in their curriculum. The study sought to obtain the same information from professional recruiters by asking: What skills, both technical and non-technical are you looking for when searching for an engineer who is a good fit for most companies? This was followed by the question: According to most of the engineering graduates that you have interviewed so far, what skills do you feel are important but lacking?

Researchers felt that group discussions with the engineering community would have been the best form of data collection but they also agreed that it would not have been practical. Questionnaires could also have been sent out to participants but this method usually yields fewer returns as participants avoid the hustle of filling and mailing back the questionnaires. Owing to the different geographical locations of the participants, the telephone was the quickest and easiest way to obtain information.

This specific method was based on basic interpretive qualitative research methods and utilized different semi-structured interviews. The researcher ensured that the interview questions asked were not many to maintain the interest of the interviewees. The questions asked were open-ended in nature to encourage fresh and imaginative answers from participants. Open-ended questions do not limit the interviewee, and this helped the researcher to gather a lot more information.

In qualitative research, the probability of researcher bias is normally high. In this study, several steps were taken to minimize researcher bias. The researcher’s role was in assembling the instruments needed, acquiring contact information, designing the basic outline of the interview, and data analysis. The interview process took place in the absence of the researcher. This minimized bias that would have resulted from direct interaction with participants.

Study participants

The study population and the study site were carefully chosen for this study. Interviews were conducted on recent engineering graduates, engineering managers, and professional recruiters as they are more knowledgeable on the engineering topic than the general population. The study participants were all from Kentucky. Kentucky was chosen alone to keep the amount of data collected to a reasonable level and because the engineering curriculum used is similar in all its institutions. The likelihood of all potential participants owning telephones and using email was also high. This ensured that there would be a high chance of recruiting most of the population targeted.

The sampling approach used in this study was the targeted approach. In this approach, sampling sites are selected according to a particular condition or to test a hypothesis. This study evaluates the question of the lack of soft skills in engineering students. The targeted sampling approach is therefore the best method to find answers to a specific question. The target was the individuals from the engineering discipline. These participants were accessed through email. They were then invited to participate in telephone interviews. In the e-mail, several key points were highlighted: The identity of the researcher, the purpose of the interview, the type of interview and how long it would take, and interviewer contact information was given.

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Data collection

The method of data collection was chosen based on many factors. The use of telephone interviews would ensure that the information collected was not edited by the participants. Answers given would be raw and not cleverly designed to please the interviewer. It would also allow the researcher to reach a wide range of participants from all over Kentucky. This form of data collection is also less costly; it requires very few instruments, research personnel, and paperwork.

The type of data to be collected was divided into three main parts based on the three groups forming the unit of analysis. One was data related to the type of soft skills, if any, learned in engineering schools. The second would be the effect that this lack of soft skills had on graduates in the job market. The third would be suggestions that would highlight the specific soft skills that can be introduced into the engineering curriculum. A cataloging system was used to keep track of data. Audiotapes were stored in numerical order according to the order of appointments.

Procedures followed

Before the study began, several steps had to be undertaken first. A survey form was prepared. It provided in detail all the data that was to be collected. Having drafted frequent questions and a topical outline, the researcher accessed the names and e-mail addresses of all recent engineering graduates from ten universities in Kentucky. These graduates had left their universities within the last two years. Engineering managers and professional recruiters were located through their company websites. A few potential participants were chosen for a pilot study which was a success. This gave the researchers the go-ahead to start the main project. Study participants were contacted via email and requested to avail themselves of a telephone interview. Those who responded were allowed to choose the best time when they could comfortably take part in the interview. A professional interviewer trained in the art of semi-structured interviewing was hired for the entire process. Interviews were recorded and main points are written down on paper as the interviews progressed. After the data had been analyzed, conclusions were then made.

Trustworthiness

The information obtained from this study has high credibility, dependability, and confirmability. The e-mail addresses and telephone numbers used to contact study participants were obtained from credible sources. Information regarding recent graduates was obtained from college officials. Engineering managers were contacted through their work telephones and professional recruiters were selected from accredited recruiting organizations only. The use of computer-assisted quality data analysis assured confirmability and credibility by minimizing human skills and perceptions.

In addition to the above, triangulation was done by use of a wide range of informants. Informants consisted of those in the engineering job market and those looking to enter the job market. Site triangulation was also accomplished by recruiting interviewees from different organizations and institutions all over Kentucky.

Ethical concerns

Before agreeing to be interviewed in this study, participants were provided with information on confidentiality. They were informed that the information collected would be the sole property of the researcher. They were also informed that the information collected would be stored securely and only a handful of people would have access to it. They were also informed that the data would be used to improve engineering programs and that it would be stored for ten years.

Participants were required to sign and send a consent form sent to them via e-mail. They were expected to sign it, scan, and send it back to the researcher. Those who desired anonymity were granted because only their views on the topic were required. All the information regarding participants was saved under a code number assigned by the order in which they booked their appointments. Personally identifying data was stored in a USB that was password protected with only two researchers granted the password.

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Data analysis

Researchers did not analyze data until the interview process was complete. It helped in avoiding leading questions that may have resulted from an observation of a trend in the data already stored. Data analysis was done both by humans and through mechanical methods. Using a computer program, researchers were able to find words and phrases that were mentioned severally and the frequency of their reoccurrence. To do so, the researcher used the MAXQDA software.

Instrumentation

Several instruments were utilized to aid in the collection of and analysis of data. The internet was used to communicate with potential participants, to find out their credibility, and to obtain names of professional recruiting organizations. Other instruments used were the telephone and recording devices. The telephone was the chosen form of communication when it came to interviewing the participants. The conversations would be recorded and later transcribed into hard copies. Computer software programs were used to aid in the analysis of data. Storage devices included USBs and other external hard drives.

Data collection

The procedure that would be used for data collection was designed and drawn out to reduce time wastage while obtaining quality information. Appointments for the telephone interviews were made through e-mail a week before the interview. The interview was semi-structured and therefore relaxed and conversational. At first, participants were asked general questions to make them feel at ease. They were then asked probing questions as the interviewer recorded key points and answers. To reduce the number of variables that may result from qualitative research, deviations were avoided by asking specific questions, listening carefully, and avoiding leading questions. Interviews were also short to avoid boredom and digression from the topic in question.

Quality

Qualitative research methods help the researcher to understand fully the details of a study. Since these methods do not generalize and cannot rely on controls or careful planning, this makes them more prone to validity threats. The researcher in this study took measures to minimize validity threats by interpreting data using computer software. The researcher utilized member checks and triangulation to increase interpretive validity. Other methods utilized include giving the interviewees opportunities to ask questions. This brought fresh insight and better-quality data.

The decision to use qualitative research also ensured that the data collected was of high quality. This research was designed to find out the point of view of an outsider (professional recruiting agents) as well as an insider (recent graduates and engineering managers). The use of these different subjects assured the researchers of objectivity.

Summary

Data were collected from participants in the engineering field. The objective was to find out what non-technical material is lacking from the engineering curriculum in Kentucky. It subsequently sought to identify what soft skills are required by engineering graduates. The research design of choice was qualitative. A targeted sampling approach was used to contact the candidates via e-mail and request them to

participate in the study. Those who agreed to take part in the study were interviewed through the telephone. Data collected was analyzed using mechanical and human skills.

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