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Future engineers need to understand their work’s human impact – here’s how my classes prepare students to tackle problems like climate change

Future engineers need to understand their work’s human impact – here’s how my classes prepare students to tackle problems like climate change

Students in a 1966 black-and-white photo stand around aeronautics equipment

Engineers spend much of their time absorbed in the technical aspects of problems, whether they’re designing the next generation of smartphones or building a subway.

Recent news stories show that technocentric approaches have some serious limitations. They can lead to society being less helpful than beneficial.

For example: Artificial intelligence algorithmsSoftware engineers created software to encourage user engagement. They end up encouraging hate speech and undermining democracy. Pulse oximetersCOVID-19 is best diagnosed with people with lighter skin. Power plants and engines, which have enabled much of the “progress” seen since the Industrial Revolution, have fueled Climate change.

As an engineer professor, I have spent the last six years trying out to find ways to educate the next generation engineers to avoid making the same mistakes.

Research has shown that engineering classes are often focused on the wrong things. Problems that are not contextualizedFailure to consider the social context. Students are expected to spend too much time solving mathematical equations, and not enough time considering the human dimensions of the problems that they are trying solve.

Practicing engineers are called on to solve ill-posed, messy problems that do not have one correct answer that’s easily found in a textbook. This is a crucial time for engineers to teach students how to deal with complexity.

Cold War influence that still lingers today

Most engineering programs focus on standard “engineering science” courses, such as statics, thermodynamics and circuits, that trace their influences back to the technological race with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, as Jon Leydens and Juan Lucena explain in their book “Engineering for Justice.”

It was then – some seven decades ago – that engineering curriculums began to emphasize the scientific and mathematical basis of engineering, cutting back on hands-on engineering design and humanities courses. Although most engineering programs now include these courses, many engineering classes still have a divide between the two. Social and technical.

Students in a 1966 black-and-white photo stand around aeronautics equipment
During the Cold War, engineering schools started to focus almost exclusively on math and science during their curriculums.
Fox Photos via Getty Images

Even more disheartening, my colleague Erin Cech’s work on the “Culture of disengagement” found that engineering students seemed to graduate from college more disengaged from social issues than when they started.

In a longitudinal survey of students across four universities, she found that students’ commitment to public welfare declined significantly over the course of their engineering education. The study was published in 2013. It surveyed 326 college students every year as well as 18-months after graduation. She found that students’ “beliefs in the importance of professional and ethical responsibilities, understanding the consequences of technology, understanding how people use machines, and social consciousness all decline.”

Far from improving students’ ability to engage on these critical issues when they graduate, the traditional approach may be making things worse. While some schools have changed their approach over the years, others have not.

How I’m encouraging a ‘sociotechnical’ mindset

I believe that engineers need to move away from a technocentric approach and adopt a sociotechnical mindset, as I explain in my book “Drones for Good: How Sociotechnical Thinking can be Integrated into the Classroom.” By this I mean we need to start thinking about the ways in which the social and technical are always connected. These two aspects should not be considered separately. Technological challenges should go to engineers, while social challenges should go to sociologists.

Sociotechnical Thinking is the ability to identify and resolve problems in a relationship.

To validate this approach to education my colleagues and me have extensively studied the effect of sociotechnical thinking upon student performance in a wide variety of classes and contexts. This includes courses in English. Energie, dronesAnd Design. We recently developed a new course called Integrated Approach to Energy with funding from The National Science Foundation. It integrates sociotechnical thinking right from the beginning.

We start the semester with a discussion about energy use and not the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. As the semester progresses we will examine not only the technical details of solar and wind but also the ways fossil fuels have greatly damaged our world.

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Mountain meadow with a small patch of snow.

Two engineers shown through a window work on a renewable energy project with wires
Many engineering elements have social consequences, especially discussions about energy and climate change.
leventince via Getty Images

Our peer-reviewed research on this class – conducted through interviews and analysis of students’ work and behavior – has shown that with a sociotechnical approach students maintain a high level of technical achievement but also develop awareness of the social implications of engineering practice.

Be cautiously optimistic about the future

The education field is known for being resistant to change. engineering educationThis is not an exception. However, there is still room for cautious optimism as I write this.

Today’s college students are part a generation that has turned the corner on years of declining. civic engagement. Climate activists are young leaders Greta ThunbergAnd Leah ThomasThey have begun calling a powerful older generation into account.

This transformative mindset is now being taught in engineering courses. Students are more open to having conversations with engineers about how they can help promote a positive mindset. Sustainable futureEngage in discussions about social justice.

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There are several new engineering programs, including one that includes the department of Integrated engineering I teach at the University of San Diego. Engineering, design, and societyThe Colorado School of Mines is making sociotechnical thought central to their curriculum. Harvey Mudd Smith and Olin require their students to take a large number of humanities and socio science courses. They have made hands-on learning central part of their curriculum.

In my view, the broad lesson is that it’s not enough to think society is one thing and technology is another. Anyone with a social media account can tell you it’s not that simple.

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