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Full Paper: An integrated engineering/history/ethics first-year experience at Boston College

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2021 First-Year Engineering Experience



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August 9, 2021

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August 9, 2021

End Date

August 21, 2021

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Jonathan Krones Boston College Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Krones is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Boston College's new Department of Human-Centered Engineering (HCE). Before starting this position in 2021, he was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Environmental Studies at BC, where he introduced engineering-style pedagogy into the first-year Core Curriculum and helped to establish HCE. In addition to engineering education, his research focuses on industrial ecology and environmentally sustainable solid waste systems. Dr. Krones received his PhD in Engineering Systems from MIT in 2016.

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Jenna Tonn Boston College

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Dr. Jenna Tonn is a historian of science, technology, and engineering at Boston College. She received her BA and MA from Stanford University and her PhD from Harvard University. Her research focuses on the social and cultural context of science, technology, and engineering, with a particular interest in gender and science, technology and reproduction, and design justice. At Boston College, Dr. Tonn teaches interdisciplinary courses about the history of technology and engineering. She is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Boston College's new Human-Centered Engineering major.

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Russell C. Powell

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Dr. Powell is Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Theology and Ethics at Boston College. His research is in contemporary environmental issues and their religious, ethical, and political resonances. He is currently at work on a manuscript focused on John Muir, the famed nineteenth-century American conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, and Muir's influence on conceptions of the sacred in modern American religious consciousness. Dr. Powell's research also examines the intersection of race, religion, and environment.

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This paper presents a novel, first-year interdisciplinary engineering experience that combines the history of science and technology studies, engineering and design fundamentals, and Jesuit ethical and moral inquiry. The course, Making the Modern World: Design, Ethics & Engineering (MMW), is open to all first-year students at Boston College (BC), satisfying Core requirements in both history and natural science. MMW also served as the pilot course for BC’s new Department of Human-Centered Engineering (HCE) and has been designed to satisfy select requirements for ABET accreditation. MMW includes three pedagogical components: lectures, labs, and weekly reflection sessions. Lecture classes explore the major branches of engineering and the history of science and technology since 1800, with an emphasis on sociotechnical systems and their relationship to gender, race, immigration, geography, and nationality. Labs include hands-on engineering modeling tasks as well as a multi-week human-centered design challenge focused on issues of access and accessibility on the BC campus. Reflection sessions draw on BC’s Jesuit traditions of student formation in which students grapple with the ethical dimensions of technology and engineering decision-making as well as reflect on how course content is influencing their personal and academic paths.

An exciting and essential pedagogical component of MMW is a series of interactive engineering case studies that model the important ways in which practicing and thinking about engineering connects with pressing social, environmental, regulatory, and political questions. These case studies include engineering failures from history like the Bhopal disaster and the Boeing 737 MAX as well as complex contemporary challenges like geoengineering and facial recognition technology. Students analyze the history of the events, engaging with primary sources from a variety of stakeholders, and reconstruct engineering design constraints, decisions, and outcomes. A primary aim in these case studies is to think about the contingency of engineering practices and their relationship to concepts of risk, unintended consequences, technological development, and corporate and state hierarchies. The Boeing 737 MAX case concluded with students role-playing key stakeholders, including Boeing engineers and executives, FAA regulators, pilots, and family members of those who died in the Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accidents. The need to empathize with the varied stakeholder positions and then advocate on their behalf in class helps to showcase the complexity and ethical dimensions of real-world engineering problems.

MMW offers a model of a first-year engineering experience that grounds the practice and profession of engineering in its social, cultural, and historical contexts while offering students critical tools for ethically-informed engineering decision-making.

Krones, J., & Tonn, J., & Powell, R. C. (2021, August), Full Paper: An integrated engineering/history/ethics first-year experience at Boston College Paper presented at 2021 First-Year Engineering Experience, Virtual .

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