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“Drugs, Alcohol, Joblessness, and Lifestyle”: Engineering Students’ Perceptions of Homelessness and Implications for Social Justice 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

Bridging Content and Context in the Classroom

Tagged Divisions

Equity and Culture & Social Justice in Education

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Paper Authors


Joel Alejandro Mejia University of San Diego Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Joel Alejandro (Alex) Mejia is an assistant professor in the Department of Integrated Engineering at the University of San Diego. His research has contributed to the integration of critical theoretical frameworks and Chicano Cultural Studies to investigate and analyze existing deficit models in engineering education. Dr. Mejia’s work also examines how asset-based models impact the validation and recognition of students and communities of color as holders and creators of knowledge. His current work seeks to analyze and describe the tensions, contradictions, and cultural collisions many Latino/a/x students experience in engineering through testimonios. He is particularly interested in approaches that contribute to a more expansive understanding of engineering in sociocultural contexts, the impact of critical consciousness in engineering practice, and development and implementation of culturally responsive pedagogies in engineering education.

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Diana A. Chen University of San Diego Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Diana A. Chen is an Assistant Professor of Integrated Engineering at the University of San Diego. She joined the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering in 2016. Her research interests are in areas of sustainable design, including biomimicry and adaptability in structural, city, and regional applications. Additionally, her scholarship includes topics such as curriculum development, contextualization of fundamental engineering sciences and integrating social justice into engineering education. She earned her MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from Clemson University, and her BS in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College.

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Mark A. Chapman University of San Diego Orcid 16x16

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Mark Chapman is an assistant professor at the University of San Diego in the Department of Integrated Engineering. His interests lie in the fields of skeletal muscle mechanics, muscle disease, exercise physiology, international education and engineering education. He earned his MS and PhD in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego and a B.S. in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.

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Bryce Fledderman University of San Diego

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My name is Bryce Fledderman and I am a senior at the University of San Diego. I am majoring in Integrated Engineering with an emphasis in Sustainability. I am also a student-athlete at the university who plays football. I started doing research with Dr. Mejia in August and am very exciting to work on my first paper.

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Social contexts in engineering are often seen as tangential to problem solving, thus exacerbating the problematic ways in which engineering problems may be framed and how social justice is addressed in the classroom. We argue that before interventions can be implemented in the classroom, it is important to analyze how students interpret social justice issues in the context of engineering. In this paper, we explore how engineering students in a lower division user-centered design course framed issues of homelessness within an engineering context. We focused on the issue of homelessness as the context for the course’s design project because it is one of the largest social justice issues impacting the area where the University of the Borderland (pseudonym) is located.

During the Fall 2019 semester, students enrolled in the course were asked to design a solar water heater for a mobile shower unit intended to provide services to individuals experiencing homelessness. During the COVID-19 crisis in the Spring of 2020, students were asked to identify an unmet user need related to the pandemic affecting individuals experiencing homelessness. Both semesters required students to do background research on the issue of homelessness, attend a talk from a guest speaker, and participate in in-class activities around the theme of homelessness. In both semesters, students completed four open-ended questions before and after the project. The open-ended questions were intended to gather data related to students’ perceptions of homelessness and the role of engineers in this social justice issue (e.g., What are the major reasons why people are or become homeless? What is the role of engineering in mitigating or addressing homelessness? In what ways does engineering ameliorate or exacerbate homelessness? What would be a potential solution for homelessness?). A total of 105 students responded to the open-ended questions. The pre- and post-responses were analyzed following a deductive coding approach where codes were applied and data was systematically reviewed to refine the coding scheme. Our goal was to determine how the project influenced students’ perceptions of homelessness and the role of engineers in this social justice issue.

Preliminary results indicate that students tend to frame issues of homlessness in terms of deficit perspectives (e.g., inadequacies of the home) and sometimes adhere to meritocratic ideologies. In addition, most students adhered to the idea that engineering is a field dedicated to serve others by “fixing” problems but rarely mentioned their role in society as being contributors to a solution. These responses align with the idea that engineering is primarily a technical profession (i.e., providing efficient, cost effective solutions) and social actors are seen as tangential to or separate from engineering work. Also, we noted that most engineering students do not see themselves as being agentic actors or agents of change – rarely mentioning their role as citizens. These results suggest that engineering educators that seek to address issues of social justice need to first deconstruct the complexity of engineering practice and the nuances involved in technical work. Decoding complex social issues is important in order for students to see themselves as agentic actors that can contribute to social justice through engineering design.

Mejia, J. A., & Chen, D. A., & Chapman, M. A., & Fledderman, B. (2021, July), “Drugs, Alcohol, Joblessness, and Lifestyle”: Engineering Students’ Perceptions of Homelessness and Implications for Social Justice Education Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36531

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