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From Sacred Cow to Dairy Cow: Challenges and Opportunities in Integrating of Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Integrating Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society and Engineering Ethics

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.806.1 - 26.806.19



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Paper Authors


Juan C. Lucena Colorado School of Mines

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Juan Lucena is Professor and Director of Humanitarian Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM). Juan obtained a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies (STS) from Virginia Tech and a MS in STS and BS in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). His books include Defending the Nation: U.S. Policymaking to Create Scientists and Engineers from Sputnik to the ‘War Against Terrorism’ (University Press of America, 2005), Engineering and Sustainable Community Development (Morgan &Claypool, 2010), and Engineering Education for Social Justice: Critical Explorations and Opportunities (Springer, 2013).

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Jon A. Leydens Colorado School of Mines

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Jon A. Leydens is an associate professor in the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies at the Colorado School of Mines, USA, where he has been since 1997. Research and teaching interests include communication, social justice, and engineering education.

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Challenges and Opportunities in Integrating Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses    What role can the social justice dimensions inherent in engineering science courses play inpromoting student engagement and learning? What role can this integration play in educatingengineers that are more socially just and perhaps better engineers? While the other threepapers address these questions in diverse ways, this one provides a framework for thesequestions by defining social justice, identifying what inherent means in this context,explaining why engineering sciences are an ideal, yet problematic, curricular site forintegration, and providing strategies that facilitate social justice integration.First, how is social justice being defined? Although the term social justice is polysemic, wedraw here on a synthesized definition. In the context of engineering, social justice refers toengineering practices that strive to enhance human capabilities (ends) through an equitabledistribution of opportunities and resources while reducing imposed risks and harms (means)among agentic citizens of a specific community or communities (this definition is a uniquesynthesis of definitions found in Barry, 2005; Capeheart and Milovanovic, 2007; Nussbaum,2007, 2011). The paper explains and provides examples of opportunities and resources, risksand harms, agentic, as well as a brief overview of 10 specific human capacities.Second, in what ways are social justice dimensions inherent in engineering science courses?Engineering concepts, models, and systems are not created nor implemented in a vacuum, butin socio-political contexts; hence, it would be inaccurate to speak of those concepts, models,and systems as purely technical. Rather, they are sociotechnical constructs. Inherent in suchconstructs are fundamentally social questions, such as who benefits (or does not), who suffers(or does not), or who is included (or is not) because of such constructs. Thus, social justicedimensions are not an add-on to engineering science curricula. Instead, they are inherent—though frequently neglected—dimensions of sociotechnical construct creation, evaluation,and implementation.Third, why integrate social justice dimensions in engineering sciences? Such integration inliberal arts for engineering students is laudable. It can expand narrow coverage ofsustainability and engineering ethics content and even contribute to efforts of inclusivity.However, if social justice surfaces only in liberal arts courses, it sends the message that suchcontent is irrelevant to “real” engineering. If such content appears in engineering designcourses, it is a step forward, but still puts such content on the periphery of the curriculum.Since the bulk—and often most valued core—of engineering coursework exists within theengineering sciences, and many engineering faculty and students consider this to be the mostimportant dimension of becoming an engineer, social justice would have more resonance if itwere judiciously integrated in engineering science courses. Judicious integration is warrantedparticularly because engineering science courses tend to be quite content-intensive. Thus, acurricular and pedagogical design challenge emerges: how can highly relevant, social justiceinstruction be integrated in content-intensive engineering science courses without dilutingtheir technical content?To address that final question, we present a four-component pedagogical approach and sixsocial justice criteria. Together, these aid in the structuring and integration of social justice inengineering science courses. To show how the pedagogical approach and criteria function,we draw examples from four specific courses featuring social justice integration: FeedbackControl Systems, Continuous-Time Signal Systems, Thermodynamics, and Mass and EnergyBalances/Intro Chemical Process Engineering.Drawing from critical pedagogies, the pedagogical approach includes an iterative learningapproach with four components: Engage ! Analyze ! Reflect ! Change (Riley, 2012).Students begin the process by engaging with a course-related question or issue, throughprovided material or through their own research. Once they have gathered material, theyanalyze it to better understand a process, concept, or situation. Analysis includes technicaland social dimensions. From their engagement and analysis, students reflect on theirlearning, and are challenged to use that new knowledge to consider change either in their orothers’ physical realities. Although described linearly here, the process is actually iterative;for instance, a proposed change may render visible a new question to engage, restarting thecycle.The six Engineering for Social Justice criteria stem from the authors’ synthesized definitionof social justice (see above). Based on this definition, we propose six criteria that facilitatethe integration of social justice in engineering courses: listening contextually; identifyingstructural conditions; acknowledging political agency/mobilizing power; increasingopportunities and resources; reducing imposed risks and harms; and enhancing humancapabilities. In the paper, we explain each criterion and draw examples from the fourengineering science courses above to show the criteria’s applicability.Through the framework presented here, and the examples drawn from the other papers in thissession, we seek to encourage other engineering science educators to consider integratingsocial justice into their courses.Note: this paper is one of four in the session, “Pushing the Boundaries of the Liberal Arts andEngineering: Integrating Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses.”

Lucena, J. C., & Leydens, J. A. (2015, June), From Sacred Cow to Dairy Cow: Challenges and Opportunities in Integrating of Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24143

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2015 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015