Reflexive Rejection: Confessions of our first encounters with SenseMaker®, an emerging research methodology for STEM education

Confessions of our first encounters with SenseMaker®, an emerging research methodology for STEM education

  • Nicola Wendy Sochacka University of Georgia
  • Linda Vanasupa Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
  • Carol Thurman
  • Patrice Torcivia



Point of view (25-50 words):

We are four female educational practitioners who engage in varying degrees and forms of teaching, research, and evaluation. And, we have been educated in legacy research methods. We are curious about new approaches to conceptualizing, inquiring into, and doing science, technology, engineering and math (‘STEM’) education that have the potential to disrupt systemic social, economic, and ecological abuse and exploitation.


Value of submission (25-50 words): This autoethnographic analysis of our individual narratives serves as a cautionary tale and emotional sign-posts for those seeking to explore emerging research methodologies, particularly those that are suited for complex, dynamic social systems, such as “engineering education”: expect cognitive and/or emotional dissonance. By definition, alternative approaches to research will occur as new and possibly foreign to those trained in traditional research approaches. Such a reflexive rejection happens unconsciously and undermines the goal of learning--discovery.



It is becoming increasingly common to hear engineering education described as a complex system (National Science Foundation, 2018). Such a perspective shifts the focus of analysis from the parts to the whole – from individual elements to the relationships between the elements. Most engineering education researchers, however, are trained in atomistic or reductionist models of inquiry (Borrego, 2007; Laszlo, 1996; Robbins, 2007), which begs the question – how prepared are engineering education researchers to conduct research on, and productively intervene in, complex systems? As four educational practitioners who have previously embraced complex systems thinking, both in our teaching and in our research, we considered ourselves well prepared to explore a new, participatory research methodology, called SenseMaker, which is explicitly designed to understand characterize and facilitate interventions in complex systems. And yet, all four of us independently and reflexively rejected this methodology upon our first encounter with it. In this study, we used collaborative autoethnographic techniques to examine what it is about our shared cultures, experiences, and training as engineering education researchers and practitioners that led us to react in this way. We reflect on how methodologies founded on complex systems theory, like SenseMaker, often sit outside the boundaries of what we are used to and may initially occur to us as “foreign,” or even “wrong.” Further, we explore how our reflexive responses were connected to embodied cognition, that is, a recognition that “[one’s] body, beyond the brain “play[s] a significant causal… role in cognitive processing” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011). We offer some suggestions for developing an awareness of both reflexive rejection responses and how to recognize and use our embodied cognition. These perspectives are important for researchers who seek new ways to understand and work with complex, dynamic social systems.