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Are Civil Engineers "Practicing What They Preach?"

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Community Engagement Division Technical Session 6

Tagged Division

Community Engagement Division

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Paper Authors


Nathalie Al Kakoun Swansea University

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Nathalie Al Kakoun holds a BEng in Civil Engineering (Hons) and is now pursuing a multidisciplinary PhD, crossing engineering with psychology, at Swansea University. Nathalie is currently researching and designing interventions that characterise empathy and social consciousness in engineers and civil engineering design processes. She is also currently researching engineering mindsets, attempting to understand (and further align) the compatibility of engineering mindsets to engineers’ engagement with public-welfare related, human-centred designing frameworks.

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Frederic Boy Swansea University Orcid 16x16

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Frederic Boy is an Associate Professor in Digital Analytics and Cognitive Neuroscience at Swansea University’s School of Management and an honorary Senior Lecturer in Engineering at University College, London. Previously, he did his PhD in Grenoble University and trained in Cardiff University, where he held a Wellcome Trust VIP fellowship. His research interests include brain science, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering. He is working on a range of multidisciplinary projects at the intersection of neuroscience and engineering, digital humanities and, more recently economics, with a new focus on the interplay between Artificial Intelligence and Mental Health.

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Patricia Xavier Swansea University

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Patricia is a water engineer with a background in both the private and public water sector. She has expertise in the design of flood alleviation schemes and wastewater networks. Patricia leads Academic Programme Enhancement and Development for the College of Engineering. With her background in industry, she is keenly aware that the sector-wide academisation and de-contextualisation of engineering education is leading to an engineering sector that struggles to relate theory to practice.

Her main area of research is into the social impact of engineers and engineering – critiquing how the methodologies adopted by engineers can sometimes run counter to the needs of communities they serve and reinforce structures of power that maintain inequality. Civil Engineering in particular is inextricably linked up with societal change, and responsible engineering is about understanding wider environmental and social impacts of design and construction. Patricia teaches creative design modules that give students tools and techniques (Human-centered design, VR collaborative design tools) to find their own brand of creativity, while prompting students to consider how their individual privilege and biases impact on their design decisions.

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Studies show that personal values can influence decision making, problem solving, and behaviour. We draw from this literature and analyse the link between personal value and designs produced by civil engineering students, as part of a Human-Centred Designing assignment. We also study the influence of priming on design decisions. We collected data on Schwartz’s Personal Value Systems of first- and third year civil engineering students at a university in Wales. Students were set a conceptual design task to fulfil a variety of human needs from subsistence to freedom, with the intention of elevating the quality of life of residents by meeting as many needs as possible. We analysed which Higher Order Values were more likely to produce designs with community-orientated spaces that enable residents to interact, fulfilling communal needs, termed ‘Communal Designs’. While the majority (63.93%) of first year students were in the Higher Order Value Self Transcendence category, which is aligned with communal values, only 27.78% of them produced a Communal Design, with 50% of these having higher-than-average social desirability scores. On the other hand, the majority of Communal Designs (73.33%) were produced by those in the Higher Order Value Openness to Change category, with only 18.18% of these having higher-than-average social desirability scores. These findings lead us to either doubt the accuracy of the claimed Higher Order Value of the majority of civil engineering students, or require us to make sense of the dissonance between proclaimed values held, and the lack of acting upon it to produce Communal Designs. Priming had no significant effect on whether a student produced a Communal Design, although it seemed to have a significant decreasing influence on Empathic Concern, which is associated with prosocial, altruistic, self-transcendent acts. Our study also shows that the majority (54.84%) of third year students, also had their primary Higher Order Value as Self Transcendence. Comparative analyses were run to search for differences in personal value systems between the first year and third year civil engineering students. It was found that third year students valued Tradition more than first year students. Tradition ultimately contributes toward the Higher Order Value of Conservation, which is opposed to Openness to Change, and thus the likelihood of a student producing a Communal Design. First year students had a significant correlation between their Basic Value of Tradition and their Higher Order Value of Self Enhancement, and between Tradition and their Higher Order Value of Openness to Change. Third year students were found to have a significant correlation between Tradition and their Higher Order Value of Self Transcendence. This is an interesting finding, given that Self Enhancement and Self Transcendence are opposing in nature, and that there has been discussion of how cultural values could change within engineering education over time. We also discuss whether Sheeran & Web’s ‘Intention - Behaviour Gap’ could offer an explanation of the dissonance between the Higher Order Value and the decision to act in accordance with it (for example, a Higher Order Value of Self Transcendence, a communal value, was hypothesised to lead to designs promoting community, but this did not occur). In taking this forward, the principles behind identifying Communal Designs were found to align to ‘Placemaking’, a term used in architectural urban design to cultivate spaces for community engagement. We propose that Placemaking could be integrated into civil engineering’s conceptual design education, as it may provide a framework for civil engineers to consider social impact of design.

Al Kakoun, N., & Boy, F., & Xavier, P. (2021, July), Are Civil Engineers "Practicing What They Preach?" Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36697

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