Adaptive Expertise

According to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) Engineering Criteria 2000, "engineering programs must be designed to prepare graduates for the practice of engineering at a professional level." This statement can be interpreted as requiring more than simply imparting in students a basic understanding of content knowledge in a particular domain. In addition, as technology continues to advance rapidly it will become more difficult to equip engineering undergraduates with the knowledge and skills required in the workplace. Thus, while engineering programs must continue to cover as much content knowledge as possible, one may suggest that engineering programs must also take an active role in developing the abilities of their graduates to successfully apply and extend the content knowledge that they have learned in their schooling.

In an effort to better understand the types of cognitive skills required of engineers, general work in the cognitive and learning sciences in the area of "adaptive expertise" was studied and adapted specifically with the practice of engineering in mind. In this context the adaptive expert was defined as an individual who possesses the content knowledge of an expert, but who in addition displays specific cognitive dispositions that augment and enhance their ability to effectively utilize and extend their content knowledge. Through this review four constructs that have been identified (multiple perspectives, metacognition, goals and beliefs, and epistemology) as forming the foundation of adaptiveness in this context of engineering practice.

Data collection involving undergraduate engineering students using carefully designed student surveys and a small number of in-depth student interviews has shown that this paradigm may have useful implications in engineering education. Nearly all of the students interviewed seemed to be able to recall specific instances or aspects of their design work, internships, or co-op experiences that we would describe as facilitating growth in adaptiveness. While experiences such as these are often recognized by students and educators alike as being extremely useful learning opportunities, explicit benefit of such opportunities typically go unassessed. Based on the small number of interviews conducted, we would suggest the possibility that these opportunities to practice "real-world engineering" lead to positive student growth in each of the four adaptive expertise constructs that are identified above.

For a more thorough description of adaptive expertise, see

Fisher, FT, and PL Peterson (2001). "A Tool to Measure Adaptive Expertise in Biomedical Engineering Students" Multimedia Division(Session 2793) Proceedings for the 2001 ASEE Annual Conference, June 24-27, Albuquerque, NM. (PDF file)


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Last Updated: June 26, 2017
Dr. Frank Fisher
Associate Professor
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Stevens Institute of Technology
Castle Point on Hudson
Hoboken, NJ 07030

phone: 201-216-8913
emailID: ffisher