BillWilliams Bill Williams originally trained as a chemist at University College Cork, Ireland and went on to work in education in Ireland, UK, Eritrea, Kenya, Mozambique and Portugal and to run international distance courses for the International Labour Organization in various African countries.

 He is a lecturer at the Barreiro School of Technology of the Polytechnic Institute of Setubal in Portugal, where he teaches technical communication to civil engineering and construction management undergraduates. He has been an invited lecturer at IST, University of Lisbon and the Technical University of Madrid.

 He is an associate member of the Engineering Management and Management Science Research Centre at IST, Lisbon (CEG-IST), has been an active member of the European Working Group on Engineering Education Research of SEFI since its inception in 2009 and is a founder member of the Portuguese Society for Engineering Education (SPEE).

 

What first got you interested in engineering practice?

 I originally trained as a theoretical chemist and having re-entered higher education fourteen years ago I found myself teaching technical communication in an engineering school. Because of my background perhaps, the question of boundaries between science and engineering was something I pestered my engineering colleagues about in casual conversation from time to time without ever arriving at a clear picture.

  Then in 2008 after presenting a paper at the REES engineering education symposium in Davos, Switzerland, two different colleagues who were at my talk said I should go to the INES Engineering Studies roundtable in Lisbon later that year. At the time I knew nothing at all about engineering studies but, as I live near Lisbon, out of curiosity I submitted a concept map I had been working on and it was accepted.

  As the conference date neared, I began to think I might have been a little bit impetuous: for one thing the other participants all appeared to be rather eminent in their fields (history/anthropology of engineering, Science and Technology Studies and the like). In addition the event involved active participation by all: authors would not present their own work but rather papers were assigned in advance to others who then had to lead off the roundtable discussion (no Powerpoint!) with around 30 minutes devoted to each paper. I was assigned a brief and what seemed like an interesting paper on engineering practice and knowledge production and that was when I started to get increasingly apprehensive about what I had rather rashly let myself in for – I really knew nothing about the topic and when I looked online for some kind of model or framework that would help me get my head around it nothing came up and none of my immediate colleagues seemed to be able to throw any light on the matter either.

  Just days before the event I had a stroke of luck when José Figueiredo at IST remembered his brother António had written a book chapter using the Gibbons Mode 1 and 2 concept to describe engineering knowledge production. Finally something solid I could get to grips with! Thankfully, this gave me enough structure to be able to present the author's research at the roundtable and I was more than a little relieved when he made a point of coming up to me afterwards to thank me for the introduction I had given.

  Flushed with my new-found knowledge, I then looked around for somewhere to apply it. I became interested in studying a very successful university startup called YDreams which was voted the most innovative national company in a poll of Iberian CEOs. However, I didn't have any contacts there. It's CEO, António Câmara, was very much in demand for TV and newspaper interviews and had won the prestigious national Fernando Pessoa prize and cold-calling him seemed a bit of a daunting prospect. Then, it so happened that he was a panel member at a local authority event in my area and the dean of my school was also on the panel so I managed to get introduced during the coffee break and pitched him my idea for an academic case-study of the firm. He very graciously agreed and set up the necessary visits and interviews.

  I wrote up my case study using the Gibbons Mode 1 and 2 concept and it was accepted for presentation at REES 2009 in Cairns, Australia. Although the Gibbons framing seemed to make sense of most of the data, there were a couple of nagging details which didn't fit too neatly: the importance of communication for engineers in companies had been highlighted in the interviews for example and also there was the fact that I noted engineers occupying posts of responsibility in YDreams which didn't match my idea of "engineering". However I couldn't find any alternative way of looking at the data so I really didn't know where to take it from there.

  Luckily, when I was in Australia I discovered that James Trevelyan and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia had been collecting data on engineering practice for some years and he presented an approach at REES which seemed to me to be much more applicable to what my initial data showed. James and I kept in touch afterwards and he and Sabbia Tilli very kindly offered to share their survey and coding system for us to apply in Portugal to see how engineering practice compared in the two countries. This seemed like an exciting opportunity especially as by this time I was beginning to realize that there were quite a few scholars around the world gathering empirical data about what engineers do although they tended to be found in what were to me less familiar disciplinary areas like STS, engineering studies, organization science, design and management science.

  Discussing it with José Figueiredo we came up with the idea of editing a book to bring some of these research strands together and luckily we managed to get support from our Science and Technology Foundation (FCT) to organize a roundtable to bring scholars together with the aim of publishing the book. We put the word out in various networks we were involved in like REEN and INES and the roundtable was held in Madrid in October 2011 with Etienne Wenger as our opening speaker to set the scene. This generated a core group of scholars who were interested in the project and with time others joined the group through encounters at other conferences. We had contacted CRCpress early on and they were enthusiastic about the book from the outset and so Engineering Practice in a Global Context finally came to be published in autumn 2013.

 

Why did you begin researching the topic of your chapter? Was it chance/grand plan/ colleague's recommendation ...?

 We were interested in seeing to what extent engineering practices in Portugal were similar or not to those in Australia, given that there extensive data available about the latter. It was interesting to find that by and large our findings were similar to those from the UWA study. But what is perhaps even more interesting is that a recent study of apprentices learning to be engineers in France by Bernard Blandin has come up with some similar findings despite having a quite different research approach to ours.

 

What challenges did you encounter when working on this chapter?

 The biggest challenge was in getting to grips with research methodologies which have more to do with social sciences than science or engineering research.

 Setting up the alumni surveys was also a bit of a challenge in institutional and logistical terms.

 Getting busy engineers to give you 90 minutes of their time seemed like it would be difficult also but in the event through our alumni and professional network contacts we were lucky enough to be very well received by 23 engineers who willingly shared their experiences with us.

 

What aspect of preparing your chapter gives you the most satisfaction now?

 I would say the actor-network representation of workplace practice we have proposed, as I think that would have been helpful to me if it had been available when I started to get interested in this field.

 Although I feel that the data we present does portray well the descriptions shared with us, I also feel I would like to publish more of the first person accounts we gathered so as to do justice to the richness of these narratives (another book perhaps?).

 

What advice would you give to someone beginning to get interested in engineering practice(s) research?

 Firstly I would suggest reading some of the canonical books – those by Bucciarelli, Downey and Vinck would be a good start.

 If you have an engineering or natural science background you will probably need to find out about qualitative or mixed methods research – I would suggest checking articles by Douglas and Borrego.

 While if you have and education or other social science background you should consider talking with as many working engineers as possible so as to get a first person view of the terrain.

 Finally, looking back on my answer to question one, what is interesting for me in retrospect is that a number of apparently fortuitous events ended up producing a satisfying final product and this seems like an example of what Cheryl Allendoerfer and colleagues have referred to as intentional serendipity. Moreover, in terms of my research interests, I have ended up moving quite far from the type of research I was previously involved in. This wasn't exactly planned - more like an example of what Steven Barley has referred to puddle-jumping. Barley submits that we don't necessarily have to follow well defined research streams and claims that "all of my studies have begun as attempts to wrestle with topics that I found personally compelling". He suggests that when planning a research career "even a series of haphazard moves can have meaning, and that you can do reasonably well as a researcher without following anybody else's script including, I might add, my own".

 So my experience leads me to suggest that serendipity can favour exploration of areas you find compelling, even if that means negotiating some unfamiliar territory along the way.

   

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