Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mechanical Engineering

First Advisor

Daria Kotys-Schwartz

Second Advisor

Michael Hannigan

Third Advisor

Derek Reamon

Fourth Advisor

Kevin OÇonnor

Fifth Advisor

Margaret Eisenhart


This study analyzes the social and cultural environments of gateway engineering mathematics courses of the sophomore year, specifically Calculus 3 for Engineers and Differential Equations & Linear Algebra. We ethnographically examine the experiences of undergraduate students, graduate student teaching assistants, and faculty instructional staff as they traverse these courses, in order to map out the social and cultural terrain upon which learning, status, and grades are negotiated. Inspired by a novel theory from Science and Technology Studies, we take an actor-network view of sophomore engineering, tracing connections between human actors and non-human elements including mathematical concepts, places, objects, and resources to demonstrate how students are translated to varying degrees through sophomore mathematics courses into actor-networks of engineering. Actor-Network Theory encourages a fresh perspective of sophomore engineering that affords a systems-level view of these crucial gateway courses and suggests fundamental questions regarding the nature of our courses and how they got this way in the first place.

To understand the current organization of actor-networks in sophomore engineering, our study extends back in time through history, examining the conditions in which our current building and curriculum were constructed during the Cold War era. Our findings indicate that the content and general format of these sophomore math classes have not changed significantly since the 1960s, in spite of the rapid advances in technology. Yet communication channels between professors and students have proliferated in recent years, allowing alternatives to the lecture hall for student learning while simultaneously making information delivery more difficult for faculty. We map out student progressions through these critical math courses, looking at how some students flow through smoothly while others fight and tussle around obstacles and challenges in their way. We illustrate the impact of non-human actors like exams on the organization of student actor-networks, pointing out that their power over students may be excessive. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings and recommendations for practice, noting that these actor-networks are complex and ripe for continued research.