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The Mathematical Components of
Engineering Expertise

Phillip Kent and Richard Noss
London Knowledge Lab
Institute of Education, University of London

A project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council
(grant number R000223420), February - December 2001

The MCEE project examined how mathematical ideas and techniques are used in the practice of engineering, based on case studies of professional engineers working on design projects in several civil and structural engineering consulting firms. We were especially concerned to look beyond those elements of work conventionally described as mathematical (such as techniques learnt in school or university) to try to observe situations in which a more general, and harder to specify, "mathematical literacy" is involved.

The methodology and theoretical basis of MCEE were derived from a previous ESRC-funded project carried out several years ago at the Institute of Education ("TMO - Towards a Mathematical Orientation"), which examined the mathematical practices involved in nursing, commercial aeroplane piloting, and investment banking. This project found that the various professional groups employed a variety of mathematical strategies which were finely tuned to their practice, yet simultaneously retained the notion of invariance that typifies abstract knowledge. We have been working to explain this phenomenon in terms of a theory of "situated abstraction" (see R. Noss & C. Hoyles, Windows on Mathematical Meanings, Kluwer Academic, 1996), and MCEE developed on this by carrying out research in a domain of practice where we could see some sophisticated kinds of mathematics (geometry especially) that entail complex structures of abstractions in their practical application.

MCEE did not have a brief to consider in any detail the relations between engineering practice and engineering education. This, however, was the subject of a later project, REMIT - "Reassessing the Roles of Mathematics and IT in the University Education of Engineers".

Downloads (in Adobe PDF format)

Feb 01 Detailed project proposal (as submitted to the ESRC in April 2000): MCEE-Project-proposal.pdf
Jul 01 Poster presented at the 25th Psychology of Mathematics Education Conference: MCEE-poster-for-PME25.pdf
Sep 01 Paper delivered at the conference Engineering Education 2002, Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, January 2002:
Mar 02 MCEE End of Award Report (as delivered to the funding body, ESRC)

Further information

Please contact Phillip Kent,, and Richard Noss,

Completed: March 2002. Site updated: March 2009
London Knowledge Lab - Institute of Education