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Contextualization as Virtue in Engineering Education

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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

Socially Responsible Engineering I: Context, Innovation, and Reflection

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Marie Stettler Kleine Colorado School of Mines

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Marie is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Humanitarian Engineering Program in the Department of Engineering, Design, and Society at Colorado School of Mines. She holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering and international studies from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and an M.S. and PhD in STS from Virginia Tech. She conducts research on engineering practice and pedagogy around the world, exploring its origins, purposes, and potential futures. Marie’s interest in values and engagement in professional cultures also extends to innovation and its experts. With Matthew Wisnioski and Eric Hintz, Marie co-edited Does America Need More Innovators? (MIT Press, 2019).

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Kari Zacharias Concordia University

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Kari Zacharias studies interdisciplinarity and disciplinary identities in engineering. She is currently an assistant professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia University's Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. She holds a BSc in Engineering Science from the University of Toronto, an MA in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Vienna, and a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech.

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Desen Sevi Ozkan Tufts University Orcid 16x16

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Desen is a postdoctoral researcher in the Tufts Center for Engineering Education Outreach and the Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction. She holds a Ph.D. in engineering education from Virginia Tech and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Tufts University. Her research interests are focused on interdisciplinary curriculum development in engineering education and the political, economic, and societal dimensions of curricular change.

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How do we combat the “culture of disengagement” (Cech, 2014) in engineering education? How do we effectively prepare students for the sociotechnical nature of engineering practice? As engineering educators, our responses to these questions often emphasize contextualization. Efforts to encourage engagement with public welfare, sociotechnical thinking, or social justice among engineering students often begin - and sometimes end - with illuminating the broader context of engineering practice and problems. For socially-minded engineering educators, contextualization is nearly always a virtue.

This paper analyzes and critiques practices of contextualizing engineering. Based on a qualitative content review of recent engineering education literature, we first describe and classify different modes of contextualization. In some cases, contextualizing means adding personal context or alternative perspectives to cultivate empathy with users or stakeholders (e.g. Gupta et al., 2016). In others, contextualization is part of integrating sociotechnical thinking into engineering curriculum (e.g. Claussen et al., 2019). This takes a variety of forms, but often includes examination of the socio-cultural contexts of engineering problems and foregrounding the social aspects of engineering problem definition (e.g. Erickson et al., 2020). A third mode of contextualization is found in social justice-centered approaches to engineering, which contextualize by emphasizing the often obscured power relations that engineering contains and upholds (Riley and Claris, 2003). The first two approaches take contextualization as their primary end. Adding additional context is intended to deepen students’ understanding of a problem, but not necessarily to suggest how they ought to solve it. The third approach, social justice-oriented engineering, takes a stronger normative stance. Contextualization here is a means to help students identify social injustices that engineers can then help to ameliorate (Leydens, Lucena, and Nieusma, 2014).

We interpret the results of our content review through our personal experiences as researchers and educators in STS and engineering education. We, like many engineering educators, are wary of overly prescriptive ethics instruction which elides power dynamics and places too much onus on individual actors (Tang and Nieusma, 2017). Contextualization as an end is a tempting solution; however, we also recognize the risks of illuminating complexity without providing direction (Nieusma, 2015). We see flaws in our own balancing act, often defaulting to more contextualization in an effort to render content more acceptable to students and engineering colleagues, or to avoid charges of bias. Ultimately, we argue for a balance of contextualization and normativity. We promote an alternative approach to contextualizing engineering that emphasizes engineers’ civic responsibilities and, crucially, the integration of their intersectional roles as citizens and professionals. This mode of contextualization embraces the idea of sociotechnical thinking but encourages engineers to work towards public welfare as an end goal.

Stettler Kleine, M., & Zacharias, K., & Ozkan, D. S. (2021, July), Contextualization as Virtue in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36844

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