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Board 54: Do Engineering Students Care about the Social Good?

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Educational Research and Methods Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Denise Wilson University of Washington

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Denise Wilson is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research interests in engineering education focus on the role of self-efficacy, belonging, and other non-cognitive aspects of the student experience on engagement, success, and persistence and on effective methods for teaching global issues such as those pertaining to sustainability.

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Emily Parry


Joanna Wright University of Washington

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Joanna Wright is an M.Ed. student in Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her education research interests span early childhood through higher education, with a focus on the impact of pedagogical practices and contexts on learning and development.

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Lauren Summers University of Washington

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Lauren Summers is a doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research interests focus on the potential roles of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, and other political identifiers in determining undergraduate engagement across a variety of majors, including engineering.

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This research paper explores the beliefs that students hold around major social issues including social justice, global disparities, and the role of technology in alleviating injustice and disparity. In a survey completed by almost 400 students from four different areas of study at a major public university, scores from these three subscales of social responsibility beliefs show that engineering students lag behind students in education and environmental studies majors in their beliefs about global social justice. On the other hand, engineering students tend to be more optimistic about the role of technology in addressing social issues, significantly more so than education and environmental studies majors, but similarly to business majors. In contrast, the ANOVA tests conducted on these subscales across fields of study indicate no significant difference among engineering, education, environmental studies, and business majors in terms of beliefs about global disparities. Follow up, independent samples t-tests however, indicated that engineering majors were likely to lag behind environmental studies and education majors in these measures.

Depending on the model, sustainability either embodies social responsibility within global environmental limits or overlaps social responsibility with economic and environmental concerns about providing the next generation with equal opportunity to the present generation. Regardless of which model is accepted, sustainable development includes critical issues of social responsibility, but can also be presented in the context of specific challenges (e.g. resource scarcity, sustainable energy) that allow us to study how social responsibility extends from beliefs and knowledge to willingness to act (responsibility). Three additional scales oriented around the specific issues of sustainability and sustainable development are also addressed in this study to examine the inter-relationships among beliefs, knowledge, and willingness to act (responsibility). A hierarchical linear regression model was constructed to study these inter-relationships using areas of study, four belief subscales, and one knowledge subscale as independent variables, and social responsibility for sustainability as a dependent variable. Results showed that beliefs about social justice and sustainability as well as knowledge about sustainability significantly predicted personal and professional responsibility for sustainability. However, beliefs about global disparities and the role of technology did not predict this outcome. No interactions between field of study and beliefs or knowledge were found, thereby suggesting that these relationships among beliefs, knowledge, and responsibility remain true across area of study.

In conjunction with existing studies, these results support the public perception that engineers are less concerned with social issues, but also promote the idea that education in developing beliefs and knowledge can potentially impact the level of responsibility for social issues adopted by students in engineering and other majors at graduation from college.

Wilson, D., & Parry, E., & Wright, J., & Summers, L. (2019, June), Board 54: Do Engineering Students Care about the Social Good? Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32373

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