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Critical Learning Community in a First-year Engineering Design Study Abroad Course

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-year Programs: Student Perceptions and Perspectives

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Ordel Brown Northwestern University

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Dr. Ordel Brown is an instructional professor in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, where she currently teaches first-year engineering design courses. Her research interests in engineering education include the identification of variables that impact the first-year experience and the development of strategies to enhance it, retention of underrepresented populations in STEM and global engineering experiences.

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Susanna C. Calkins Northwestern University

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Susanna Calkins, PhD is the Director of Faculty Initiatives and the Senior Associate Director of the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching at Northwestern University. She is co-author of two books, Reflective Teaching (Bloomsbury Press, 2020) and Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional ( Sage, 2009). She has also co-authored over thirty articles related to conceptions and approaches to teaching, the assessment of learning, program evaluation, mentoring, and has been a co-PI on several NSF grants. She also teaches in the Masters of Higher Education Administration Program at Northwestern.

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Lisa M. Davidson Northwestern University

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Senior Assessment Associate, Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching

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The UN’s 2030 policy agenda on sustainable development outlines seventeen universal and transformative sustainable development goals that span inequities in education, health and human services. In parallel, engineering education stakeholders are mandated to ensure that engineering graduates have appropriate knowledge of sustainable development, and the attitudes and competencies needed to meet these sustainable development goals. These are among the demands that underlie the increasing shift in engineering education from the traditional deductive pedagogy and banking concept of education to one that encourages deeper levels of contextual understanding by students. This approach allows students to acquire real-world competencies for professional success, and require complex and diverse learning environments to support competency development and the inculcation of appropriate attitudes towards sustainable development. Immersive education abroad experiences have distinctively provided these learning environments, and project-based learning and design thinking are example methodologies that have been used to promote the acquisition of such skills. Current work in engineering education, however, call for additional transdisciplinary skills through more socially engaged and enhanced engineering design pedagogy.

We created a study abroad course intended to provide a means of moving beyond traditional design thinking tenets and towards social change in engineering design. It combines elements of design thinking for social change with critical pedagogy, in the creation of a critical learning community within the course. The commonalities between design thinking for social change and critical pedagogy provide exceptional ways for learners to engage in critical, rational and transformative learning, and therefore presents a productive context for the development of the learning community. The course targets first and second year students who work on multidisciplinary and multicultural teams, prototyping solutions to social problems related to inequities in STEM education and human services in an international, underserved community. There is an intentional focus on capacity building which provides a practical means of engaging students in engineering for social change from a sustainability perspective.

Described in this account are the pedagogical theories which form the foundation of the course, the overall course design, and the structure, formation and maintenance of the critical learning community through a formal three-phase reflective process; starting with (a) students’ self-awareness and positionality within the engineering design space, through (b) the development of cultural consciousness, to (c) a holistic evaluation of their individual experiences and the broader impacts of their engineering design solutions.

Brown, O., & Calkins, S. C., & Davidson, L. M. (2020, June), Critical Learning Community in a First-year Engineering Design Study Abroad Course Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34356

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