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"Asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’": Outcomes of an interdisciplinary Degree Program in Engineering Studies

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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

Sociotechnical Thinking II: Interpretation, Curricular Practices, and Structural Change

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Jenn Stroud Rossmann Lafayette College

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Jenn Stroud Rossmann is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Co-Director of the Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education at Lafayette College. She earned her BS in mechanical engineering and the PhD in applied physics from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to joining Lafayette, she was a faculty member at Harvey Mudd College. Her scholarly interests include the fluid dynamics of blood in vessels affected by atherosclerosis and aneurysm, the cultural history of engineering, and the aerodynamics of sports projectiles.

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Kristen L. Sanford P.E. Lafayette College Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Kristen Sanford is an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lafayette College. Her expertise is in sustainable civil infrastructure management and transportation systems, and transportation and infrastructure education. She teaches a variety of courses related to transportation and civil infrastructure as well as engineering economics, and for the last ten years she chaired Lafayette's interdisciplinary Engineering Studies program. Dr. Sanford currently serves on the Transportation Research Board Committee on Workforce Development and Organizational Excellence (formerly Education and Training). She previously has served as chair of the ASEE’s Civil Engineering Division, vice-chair of the ASCE Infrastructure Systems Committee, and as a member of several other American Society of Civil Engineers’ education-related committees as well as several other Transportation Research Board technical committees. She received her Ph.D. and M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University, and her B.S.E. from Duke University.

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Benjamin Cohen Lafayette College

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Benjamin R. Cohen is an associate professor at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. He earned his Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies, after earning bachelor degrees in Chemical Engineering and History, from Virginia Tech. He is the author of Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (2020) and Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil & Society in the American Countryside (2009), and co-editor of Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement (2011). He also writes widely on the history of food, the environment, science, and technology, and the ways engineers contribute to those stories.

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The Engineering Studies Program at our institution has graduated more than 900 majors over its 50-year history. These graduates have gone on to careers in a wide range of roles in a variety of industries. While the major requirements have evolved over time, the core principles of the program – articulated in the program’s founding documents as “Society needs more liberally-educated persons with technical backgrounds” – have not. Thus, as the program celebrates its 50 years of educating sociotechnical citizens, and as society grapples with all-consuming sociotechnical problems – climate change, systemic racism, and pandemic spread and disruption – we are endeavoring to understand how our alumni see themselves and how their sociotechnical education has contributed to their identities and paths.

In previous work, the authors have documented the history of the program, its current status, its core curriculum, and the impacts on students in terms of sociotechnical thinking and diversity. It is clear from this work that students approaching graduation do view themselves as sociotechnical thinkers. This analysis also shows that graduates are more diverse in terms of gender than those in other engineering programs on our campus, and more racially/ethnically diverse than both students in other engineering programs and students as a whole at our institution. We also have previously expressed concerns about the potential masking and ghetto-ization effects of this distribution, while at the same time celebrating the diverse perspectives and richness this brings to classes and therefore the experiences of the students in those classes.

This paper looks at why the program is successful in developing sociotechnical thinking and in attracting such a diverse group of students to the major and classes. We are investigating alumni perspectives on their experiences in the program as undergraduates and how those experiences have shaped their thinking about themselves, their citizenship, and their careers. The paper will summarize and synthesize the results of alumni surveys and focus groups to provide insights. These insights will provide faculty at our own and other institutions with lessons that will be useful in considering how to better educate students to be socio-technical thinkers while broadening participation in engineering.

Rossmann, J. S., & Sanford, K. L., & Cohen, B. (2021, July), "Asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’": Outcomes of an interdisciplinary Degree Program in Engineering Studies Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36527

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