July 26, 2021
July 26, 2021
July 19, 2022
Equity and Culture & Social Justice in Education
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., & 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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