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If Engineers Solve Problems, Why Are There Still So Many Problems to Solve?: Getting Beyond Technical “Solutions” in the Classroom

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Sociotechnical Integration

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Cynthia Helen Carlson P.E. Merrimack College Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Carlson worked as a water resources engineer for 10 years prior to earning her doctorate, contributing to improved water management in communities within the United States, Middle East, and Singapore. She has been a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) since 2002. Dr. Carlson’s research interests are broadly characterized as ‘how civil engineering impacts public health’, and include storm water management, modeling environment/engineering/social interfaces, combined sewer overflows, and improved communication and education of engineering concepts.

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Catherine Woodworth Wong Merrimack College

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Catherine Woodworth Wong, M.S., M.S. is the instruction/liaison librarian for Science and Engineering, Health Sciences, and Environmental Studies and Sustainability at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.

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This Complete Evidence-Based Practice Paper describes implementation and assessment of an exercise bringing international perspectives, liberal arts, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into a first year engineering program - challenging the arbitrary boundary between engineering and the liberal arts. First-year engineering students (Civil, Mechanical, and Electrical) participated in a role-playing game recreating the 2009 United Nations Climate Talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. The exercise is part of a series of published games called Reacting to the Past, with the purpose of engaging students to enhance their understanding of a given event or topic, while improving their research and communication skills. In this case, the further goal was for students to further their understanding of the technical aspects of climate change, as well as the political and social reasons that technical solutions are not always implemented despite the best intentions and technical knowledge. Students practiced researching a topic, selecting and evaluating sources, properly citing sources, communicating in writing and orally, and arguing a point in a professional (not personal) manner. These skills, while crucial for practicing engineers, are often relatively weak in incoming students. Our initial success integrating international perspectives and traditional liberal arts concepts into a first-year engineering course was supported by several classroom innovations.

First, the Science & Engineering librarian was embedded in the class, attending approximately 50% of class meeting times. The librarian provided library programming (Environmental Movie Nights) for first-year engineering students outside of class and participated in class throughout the semester providing continuous assessment, support, and guidance. As the majority of students were in their first year, this was a great way to start a relationship between the students and the library - highlighting the link between fieldwork and research skills, and demonstrating best practices they should continue to employ as they complete research projects in their degree program.

Second, Gamefication is often cited as useful for teaching first-year students, but putting it into practice can be a challenge. While Reacting to the Past modules are common in social science courses, especially history, there is a limited number of modules available that are directly relevant to engineering topics.

Benefits of this using this activity in the first-year classroom include: - Getting students to interact with each other in a substantive way, strengthening the cohort and supporting retention. - Providing structure for learning library skills, writing, presentation skills, etc. - Introducing how professionals handle concepts of politics, tact, and negotiating across boundaries. - Providing an experiential learning environment to understand how politics, both personal and professional, can interact with technical solutions, leading to improvement or disruption in the lives of all. - Starting discussion about United Nations Sustainable Development Goals early in the careers of engineering students.

Certainly, students will see these concepts again; there are multiple group projects and research projects in their time at our school, as well as courses on ethics and professionalism. However, introducing these concepts in their first semester prepares students for future courses, and helps them understand that engineering is not just problem sets and robotics.

Carlson, C. H., & Wong, C. W. (2020, June), If Engineers Solve Problems, Why Are There Still So Many Problems to Solve?: Getting Beyond Technical “Solutions” in the Classroom Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34747

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