Situated Engineering Learning: Bridging Engineering Education Research and the Learning Sciences


(Technology, Open Organizing, and Learning Sciences laboratory) at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061;

Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) of the U. S. National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22230;



Indigo Esmonde, University of Toronto; Krishna Madhavan, Purdue University; Wolff-Michael Roth, University of Victoria; Dan L. Schwartz and Jessica Tsang, Stanford University; Estrid Sørensen, Humboldt University and Aarhus University; Iris Tabak, Ben Gurion University of the Negev


The field of engineering education research has seen substantial growth in the last five years but it often lacks theoretical and empirical work on engineering learning that could be supplied by the learning sciences. In addition, the learning sciences have focused very little on engineering learning to date.


This article summarizes prior work in the learning sciences and discusses one perspective—situative learning— in depth. Situativity refers to the central role of context, including the physical and social aspects of the environment, on learning. Furthermore, it emphasizes the socially and culturally negotiated nature of thought and action of persons in interaction. The aim of the article is to provide a foundation for future work on engineering learning and to suggest ways in which the learning sciences and engineering education research communities might work to their mutual benefit.


The article begins with a brief discussion of recent developments in engineering education research. After an initial overview of the field of learning sciences, situative learning is discussed and three analytical aspects of the perspective are outlined: social and material context, activities and interactions, and participation and identity. Relevant expert commentaries are interspersed throughout the article. The article concludes with an exploration of the potential for contributions from the learning sciences to understanding engineering learning.


There are many areas of mutual benefit for engineering education and the learning sciences and many potential areas of collaborative research that can contribute not only to engineering learning but to the learning sciences.