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Defining disciplinary cultures








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Interdisciplinary team discusses research

The interdisciplinary team (from left): Homero Murzi, Lisa McNair, Marie Peretti, and Tom Martin

A group of Virginia Tech professors has received a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate the cultures of different academic disciplines. ECE Professor Tom Martin is working with engineering education associate professors Lisa McNair and Marie Paretti to discover the cultural similarities and differences between disciplines.

They are applying Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, typically used to understand specific cultural values of countries, to various academic disciplines. Hofstede’s theory focuses on five features: power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity, and long-term orientation. Martin explains that while differences in international cultures are generally understood, the Virginia Tech team wants to discover if there are disciplinary cultures as well. “If it turns out we’re right, we’ll have a theory with explanatory power.”

Their earlier studies found that ECE students scored significantly higher in uncertainty avoidance than did students from some other disciplines. According to Martin, who started noticing differences between students from different majors when teaching interdisciplinary classes, “it explained a lot that we had noticed.” He described as an example that ECE students tended to move directly to building or designing something as soon as they found anything that they knew they could do—whether or not it was the right thing to build. In contrast, Martin mentions that design students tend to have lower uncertainty avoidance, and don’t even mind not knowing precisely how their grade is calculated. “The difference in uncertainty avoidance was the starting point for the grant that we have now,” says Martin.

Research triggers more questions

If their research finds that there are disciplinary cultures, it will trigger many more questions. “Did they come to school that way or did we make them that way?” asks Martin. “It’s probably a little of both.” With this grant, the professors will be studying several disciplines at several universities to find the answer. They will be piloting the program at Virginia Tech, studying ECE, industrial and systems engineering, and several non-engineering disciplines. They will then study the same disciplines at six other institutions, and will conduct follow-up interviews with some students.

The data, however, is not going to be clean, says Martin. Not only will the results probably show a mix of self-selection and training, but Martin also emphasizes that “these survey results aggregate the data. Any individual is not going to match the average.”

A Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) study showed that two-thirds of the variation in educational outcome is based on the entering student, and one-third is based on the institution he or she attended. Martin believes that greater understanding of how students self-select or are trained into different cultures, could help educational institutions better prepare their students for the workforce through teaching and curriculum changes.