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Integrating History and Engineering in the First-Year Core Curriculum at Boston College

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Sociotechnical Thinking I: Classroom Experiences, Identity, and Theory

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Jonathan Seth 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 A. 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 Boston College

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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 the experience of developing and teaching a pilot interdisciplinary first-year course at Boston College (BC) that invites students to build foundational skills in engineering while carefully discerning the historical and ethical contexts of science, technology, engineering, and design. This course, Making the Modern World: Design, Ethics & Engineering (MMW), is offered as part of BC’s Jesuit Core Curriculum and is an example of how liberal arts institutions integrate engineering with the social sciences and humanities. MMW has been developed and is co-taught by faculty from the departments of history, theology, and environmental science. Our aim is to provide students with tools for engineering analysis and design as well as critical skills for understanding engineering as a historically contingent practice, body of knowledge, and profession. Importantly, the course centers questions of ethics in engineering decision-making, challenging students to expand beyond the conventional frame of professional ethics into one that encompasses a model of engineering justice [1].

MMW is a six-credit, 70-student course that satisfies Core requirements in the Natural Sciences and History. Following the BC model of Complex Problems courses, MMW includes three pedagogical components: lectures, labs, and reflection. Our goal has been to integrate engineering, the history of science and technology, and ethical inquiry across these formats [2]. In the first half of the semester, lectures cover 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. In weekly labs, students engage with hands-on engineering modeling techniques and apply math and science to simple engineering design problems. In weekly reflection sessions, MMW draws on BC’s Jesuit traditions of student formation by holding small-group discussions led by third- and fourth-year peer mentors. In these sessions, 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.

In the second half of the semester, MMW emphasizes interdisciplinary integration across course components as a way of modeling the important ways in which practicing and thinking about engineering connects with pressing social, environmental, regulatory, and political questions. In lecture, students dive into a series of engineering case studies, analyzing the history of these events and reconstructing 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. Concurrently, in lab, student teams embark on a seven-week human-centered design project on the theme of design and access on the BC campus [3].

Designing and teaching MMW has raised expected challenges, particularly around balancing the pedagogical priorities of quantitative reasoning and historical analysis and argumentation as well as framing engineering justice as a motivation for the student design projects. It has also faced unexpected challenges, from adapting a large, complicated course with hands-on components into a hybrid teaching format due to COVID-19 concerns to designing integrated assessments that model the interdisciplinary intentions of the course. Lessons learned from this pilot iteration of MMW will be significant, as the ambitions and outcomes of this course will influence the design of BC’s new department of Human-Centered Engineering, set to matriculate its first students in Fall 2021.

References [1] J. A. Leydens and J. C. Lucena, Engineering justice: transforming engineering education and practice. Hoboken, NJ : Piscataway, NJ: John Wiley & Sons ; IEEE Press, 2018. [2] R. Flynn and J. Barry, "Teaching ethics to engineers - reflections on an interdisciplinary approach," in 3rd International Symposium for Engineering Education, University College Cork, Ireland, 2010. [3] S. Hendren, What can a body do? How we meet the built world. NY: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Krones, J. S., & Tonn, J. A., & Powell, R. C. (2021, July), Integrating History and Engineering in the First-Year Core Curriculum at Boston College Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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