Session III: Implications for Engineering Education
In this session, moderated by Woodie Flowers, National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Member, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, workshop participants were asked to consider the previous discussions in the context of engineering education:
Engineering educators and professional societies can promote attention to engineering in circumstances of social conflict and environmental challenge, and prepare students and members to address issues responsibly. What kinds of challenges do such activities bring to engineering education? How are educational and professional programs responding? What structural, programmatic, and/or curricular changes, if any, are underway? What alliances are needed?
The presenters were NAE member Linda Abriola, dean, School of Engineering, Tufts University; Caroline Baillie, Department of Materials Engineering and Engineering Education, Queens University, Canada; and Kevin Passino, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Ohio State University. Discussants were Richard Anderson, SOMAT Engineering, Inc., and David Daniel, NAE member and president, University of Texas, Dallas.
In his introduction of the session, Dr. Flowers mentioned FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization he works with that sponsors competitions in robotics for young people. The underlying big idea of FIRST is “gracious professionalism,” he said, and the biggest award is for teamwork and professional conduct.
ENGINEERING PROGRAMS AT TUFTS UNIVERSITY
Kick-off speaker Linda Abriola presented an overview of Tufts programs, which promote “the education of engineers as active citizens and innovative problem solvers,” and highlighted “common elements, strengths, and challenges” of the educational models on which they are based. The School of Engineering, in cooperation with the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and the Tufts Institute for the Environment, uses “project-based service learning models” in its undergraduate courses to encourage innovation, teamwork, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and leadership. “Curricular models range from mentored senior projects in sustainable design to a university-wide seminar in the Institute of Global Leadership.”
Cross-school programs highlighting specific topics (e.g., water; or systems, science, and society) encourage interdisciplinary collaborations in graduate engineering education. These programs often include participants from the social sciences and other science disciplines. Extracurricular activities, which are strongly encouraged, include participation in national organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders, and membership in Tufts outreach groups, such as NERD Girls1 and STOMP (Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program) of the Center for Engineering Educational Outreach.
Dr. Abriola listed the following factors as important to the success of these programs: institutional commitment; alignment of university culture; supportive administrative infrastructure; individual leadership; and assessment, feedback, and dissemination. These factors are also highlighted in the university’s mission statements.
ENGINEERING WITH AN EYE TO SOCIAL JUSTICE
Caroline Baillie, Department of Materials Engineering and Engineering Education, Queens University, Canada, focused on the characteristics of programs that educate engineering students with an eye to social justice. In her presentation, she (1) identified the main principles of socially just engineering practice and (2) discussed the potential of putting social justice at the center of engineering education and practice. Both of these can show the way to transforming engineering education.
“Nerd” is a term often used to describe “eggheads,” or intellectually and technically astute youngsters who are perceived, stereotypically, to lack social skills. See http://www.nerdgirls.org/About.html.
The first principle of socially just engineering practice, Dr. Baillie said, is that engineering students must be educated to think critically and to question perceived views; this principle is based on Paulo Friere’s definition of critical thinking as the ability to “see the world as changing, rather than as static,” a place where technological needs arise in “diverse social, political, and economic contexts.” The next principle is recognizing that “in an academic context, stating opinions is less important than taking positions.” Taking a position requires understanding the frames of reference and thinking through the values at issue. Only then can social justice, rather than charity, become a consideration.
Dr. Baillie described several methodological approaches to helping students master these skills: “threshold concepts, action research, collaborative enquiry, transformational learning, and phenomenography.”2 She and her collaborators have developed learning modules combining various technical and social issues, such as thermodynamics and social justice (issues related to continual growth and resource exploitation). A network addressing these issues and questions can be accessed at esjp.wikispaces.com.
“How do we get students to move … out of their comfort zones and actually critique the positions that they have always been told about from their parents, from their schools, and what they hear [in the media]? That’s not an easy thing but it’s really critical.”
Caroline Baillie, Queen’s University
EDUCATING VOLUNTEER ENGINEERS
Kevin Passino, Ohio State University, took a position in his talk— that educating volunteer engineers is a university responsibility and that fulfilling that responsibility requires several strategies: putting more emphasis on ethics and professionalism in the curriculum; encouraging hands-on volunteerism via student organizations; and promoting
“Phenomenography is the empirical study of the differing ways in which people experience, perceive, apprehend, understand, [and] conceptualize various phenomena in and aspects of the world around us.” Researchers in phenomenography investigate and classify the different ways people learn. See Ference Marton. 1994. Phenomenography. Pp. 4424–4429 in The International Encyclopedia of Education, vol. 8, 2nd ed., edited by T. Husén and T. N. Postlethwaite. New York: Pergamon Press. Available online at http://www.ped.gu.se/biorn/phgraph/civil/main/1res.appr.html.
service learning through community-oriented design projects. However, developing the academic infrastructures that can encourage and support engineering volunteerism is a significant challenge.
In support of his position, Dr. Passino noted that the definition of a profession always includes public service. This doesn’t mean that every engineer has to satisfy this criterion, he said, but the profession as a whole does. He then gave some examples of class assignments that could “teach” ethics/professionalism, such as paper design projects that must meet community design constraints or address global issues, and research papers on relevant subjects, such as assessing corporate citizenship programs, surveying engineering volunteerism projects, assessing codes of ethics, and so on.
Dr. Passino then described ECOS (Engineers for Community Service), a student-run organization at Ohio State that links students with sponsors of local and international service projects that promote professionalism.3
Finally, Dr. Passino argued for an infrastructure that goes beyond academia and involves professional organizations and government, as well as industry, where corporate citizenship programs could have a big impact.
“Public service is a crucial part of being a professional.”
Kevin Passino, Ohio State University
In response to the talks in this session, Richard Anderson of SOMAT Engineering, Inc. described what a few professional societies are doing to encourage socially just and environmentally sensitive engineering, as well as to promote professionalism and ethics. ABET4 is working with China to develop an engineering accreditation system, an ethical obligation, he argued, to help developing nations. Dr. Anderson also mentioned work by the American Association for Engineering Societies, an umbrella organization that represents the United States in the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, which has a committee on capacity building.
For more about the ECOS-sponsored activities, see ecos.osu.edu for project descriptions.
ABET, Inc., the recognized accrediting agency for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology, is a federation of 29 professional and technical societies in these fields. See www.abet.org.
Dr. Anderson then turned to issues raised in the presentation by Dr. Green, the early-career engineer. He described the contentious issues in post-Katrina New Orleans that arose when the recommendations of engineering experts conflicted with community needs and desires, such as a recommendation against rebuilding on a floodplain. He left the group with this question: Is this an example of a conflict between professional ethics and social justice? Can engineering education begin to examine and analyze professional responsibility in light of such conflict?
The second discussant, David Daniel, NAE member and president, University of Texas, Dallas, said that licensed professional engineers had “built a box around themselves” by saying who can and cannot be an engineer. On the one hand, this protects them from incompetent engineering. On the other hand, it may prevent professional engineers and engineering faculty from moving forward and from “intellectually permeating out into some of the softer boundaries on the periphery of the society.”
Dr. Daniel has argued that supporting courses for master’s degrees should not be taught in the college of engineering, a point of view that “appalls” many of his colleagues. In addition, he said, although engineers can teach micro-ethics easily, they lack the competence to teach macro-ethics. Indeed, he remarked, engineering students may regard the entire subject of ethics skeptically, given what Daniel described as a world around them that can at times appear alarmingly unethical.
“I see … a lack of willingness of a lot of faculty … to expand the size of this box that we call engineering.”
David Daniel, University of Texas, Dallas
To overcome that skepticism, Daniel suggested engineers should organize to promote a Good Samaritan law to protect engineers who come to the aid of people in a time of crisis. In support of this idea, he described his experience as chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers Hurricane Katrina external review panel. In his opinion, things had gone wrong when the levees were built in New Orleans because the focus of those promoting and implementing the project was on profit rather than on social justice. Too little money was spent on flood protection to ensure safety and social justice, he said, and there was a general unwillingness among those in a position to call the country’s attention to the needs to spend political capital to change that. As a result, the engineering of the levees was poor. However, it is too late to correct that
situation. All that can be done in the near term is to focus on evacuation plans, he said.
Dr. Daniel concluded with a reminder that the audience should consider which aspects of ethics and social justice should be taught in college classes and which should be taught in continuing education. Given the time constraints in undergraduate engineering education, this is an important issue.
Eric Pappas, school of engineering at James Madison University, noted that the communications and design program at his school is an example of a program that crosses disciplinary boundaries. It includes creative thinking, aesthetics, and ethics, among other topics.
The audience then turned quickly to an intense discussion of the meaning of “social justice.” Some argued that social justice is a political concept, others that it has religious connotations; some considered relative risk in relationship to social justice, arguing that the most vulnerable among us are often exposed to disproportionately greater risk. Still others said they considered ecological sustainability a social justice issue. Many agreed that technical knowledge is essential to understanding the social and ethical parameters of choices, whether the choices relate to transportation or fisheries or any other social activity. Engineers, they argued, should be involved in educating the public about engineering and social justice issues, but they questioned whether their education enabled them to assume that role (although one said that the Tufts program was an exemplar of how this could be done). Participants disagreed about how well engineering societies are educating the public, and even about whether engineering societies should be speaking with one voice about ethical matters.
The group also discussed whether engineering educators realize that most students do not pursue academic careers and whether they should be preparing students to deal with ethical issues that arise in non academic environments. Dr. Passino had the last word on this subject. Since only about 15 percent of engineering undergraduates at Ohio State go on to graduate school, he said, he designed a less theoretical course that focuses on issues like safety and risk in manufacturing, a situation to which many students will actually be exposed. He ended with a plea for a grassroots push for strengthening corporate citizenship programs, which could raise the status of the profession.