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Engineering and Sustainability: The Challenge of Integrating Social and Ethical Issues into a Technical Course

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Embedding Sociotechnical Systems Thinking I

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Natasha A. Andrade University of Maryland, College Park

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Dr. Natasha Andrade is a Lecturer in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Maryland College Park. Her responsibilities include teaching various undergraduate courses in environmental engineering (such as Engineering for Sustainability and Environmental Engineering Science) and conducting research focused on emerging organic pollutants and their environmental fate. She specializes in the production of stabilized biosolids, its use as a fertilizer and its impact on environmental pollution concerning organic contaminants. She has also specialized in redesigning engineering courses to make them more student-centered and encouraging of active learning. More recently, she started work on engineering education research that analyses the incorporation and effectiveness of engineering macro-ethics in-class activities that focus on sustainable development.

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David Tomblin University of Maryland, College Park

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David is the director of the Science, Technology and Society program at the University of Maryland, College Park. He works with STEM majors on the ethical and social dimensions of science and technology. David also does public engagement with science and technology work with government agencies such as NASA, DOE, and NOAA.

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Sustainability is increasingly being incorporated into engineering curriculums1,2, often due to ABET requirements3, but also due to faculty expertise. The United Nations recognizes that achieving sustainable development is only possible if a balance exists between the three dimensions of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental4. However, engineering programs can overlook the social dimension by focusing on technological solutions and conflating sustainable development with only environmental protection5,6. This paper reports on the evolution of incorporating the social dimensions of sustainability into Engineering for Sustainability, a required sophomore-level course in a Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. The course was created in 2003, revised in 20107, and redesigned in 2015-2016. Throughout the history of the course, sustainability was mostly discussed as the application of the basic sciences to engineering issues focused on protecting the environment. Though social issues were present in some lectures, there was little emphasis on social dimensions until the course’s redesign in 2015, when the design of sustainable infrastructure became the focus of the course. Activities that centered on the intersection of social issues, urbanization, and sustainable development were introduced in two class sections during a semester. These discussion-based activities have been revised every semester since their implementation in order to improve student learning outcomes, induce more thoughtful conversations among students, and invoke a deeper evaluation of the complexity of the current urban systems. However, it became evident that it was challenging to address important social issues, because of their complexity, in only two class sessions. Developing students’ understanding of social and ethical issues related to sustainable development requires full engagement of the course instructor, considerable preparation time, and the development of curriculum that intentionally brings social dimensions of sustainable technology to the forefront. The 2015 redesign of the course included a format change from lecture-based to a blended style that allowed for more student discussions and active learning opportunities. In 2017, additional curricular revision increased student exposure to social issues from two class sessions deeply focused on social issues per semester to at least 80% of the class sessions (even if briefly). The focused class sessions have evolved from a stakeholder debate approach to exercises that emphasize a socio-technical systems framework, stakeholder value mapping, and empathy building. This paper, using written student work, evaluates how the deepening of discussions revolving around social and ethical issues in sustainable urban development have affected student learning and their ability to integrate social and technical issues when thinking about the design of sustainable infrastructure. We evaluate and analyze student work from three activities that represent the evolution of curriculum in this course over the past three years. Results of the analysis suggest that short interventions in this technical course did increase students’ awareness of social impact of technologies and students’ understanding of complexity in infrastructure and technological changes.

Andrade, N. A., & Tomblin, D. (2018, June), Engineering and Sustainability: The Challenge of Integrating Social and Ethical Issues into a Technical Course Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30402

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