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Citizen Engineering: Disrupting Expertise in Classroom and Community

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Social Responsibility and Social Justice II: From Classroom to Community

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Donna M. Riley Virginia Tech

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Donna Riley is Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech.

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Jonathan Grunert Virginia Tech

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Jonathan Grunert is a graduate student in Virginia Tech's department of Science and Technology in Society, with backgrounds in history and library science. His broader interests are in the history of scientific representation. He has taught courses in American history, Science and Society, and Engineering Cultures.

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Yousef Jalali Virginia Tech


Stephanie G. Adams Old Dominion University

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Dr. Stephanie G. Adams is the Department Head and Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. She previously served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the School of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University and was a faculty member and administrator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). Her research interests include: Teamwork, International Collaborations, Faculty Development, Quality Control/Management and Broadening Participation. She is an honor graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, where she earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering, in 1988. In 1991 she was awarded the Master of Engineering degree in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia. She received her Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Engineering from Texas A&M University in 1998. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the National Science Foundation's most prestigious, Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. She is a Fellow of the American Society of Engineering Education, holds membership in a number of organizations and presently serves on the National Advisory Board of the National Society of Black Engineers.

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A new engineering course at a large land-grant university seeks to introduce non-engineers to the profession via a combination of artistic endeavors, social science analyses, engineering design thinking, and community practice. The course introduces a new concept, “citizen engineering,” borrowed from a tradition of citizen science in which community members (“non-experts”) identify scientific questions and proceed through a formal process, such as participatory action research, to systematically seek answers to their questions by defining and driving their own processes of inquiry and analysis, sometimes but not always with the cooperation of trained scientists.

The course first introduces multiple definitions of engineering and citizenship for critical discussion, develops the idea of citizen engineering from citizen science, and then proceeds to a unit on making where students ponder through examination of examples from art exhibits and popular media what kinds of activities might constitute making, and which might constitute citizen engineering, and why. The students engage in various making activities including a short project in which they design and build prototypes of an artifact to improve dorm life. After this, students gain an introduction to engineering studies through analysis of the co-construction of technology and society, and through examining the roles of citizens in large engineering projects such as nuclear power or gas pipelines. Throughout the course there is an underlying argument that non-engineers can and should engage engineering, problematizing the notion of engineering expertise as unique. A series of short essays encourage students to analyze engineering as a profession and consider their own roles as citizen engineers with the power to intervene as non-experts in engineering activities that impact society.

In this first iteration of the course, one of the authors served as a participant-observer and ethnographer focused on student learning. The observer witnessed student engagement with course topics and with one another, and interviewed students in the class (n=5). Using the observer’s analysis of his observation notes and interview responses, and using the instructors’ analysis of student work and course feedback, we reflect on the outcomes of this first iteration of the course and consider avenues for improvement.

Although the course was designed for non-engineers and particularly students outside of STEM fields, those who enrolled for this iteration were three seniors majoring in the sciences, and three first year students who intend to major in engineering but are not yet admitted to the engineering college. This population of students struggled with critical analysis and in particular with the central argument of the course that engineering ought to be democratized, that non-engineers can make crucial contributions that improve engineering practice and hold engineering accountable for its roles in society. Improved reading selection, better scaffolding for more challenging readings, alterations to pace and depth for certain concepts such as ethics, and smoothing out logistical challenges with the course should result in improved student learning.

Riley, D. M., & Grunert, J., & Jalali, Y., & Adams, S. G. (2016, June), Citizen Engineering: Disrupting Expertise in Classroom and Community Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26495

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