July 26, 2021
July 26, 2021
July 19, 2022
Within engineering education, there is a perceived distinct binary separating social and technical thoughts. Students often describe engineering work in terms of technical matters such as doing things faster, cheaper, or more efficiently, while disregarding the social contexts and social costs of these decisions. This socio-technical dualism is laced into engineering curriculum, passed from professor to student, and reinforced in the workplace. As engineers, we are rarely expected to analyze the social impact of our designs. We are taught to be emotionless, objective, and impartial. When solving problems in class, the social dimension is rarely integrated into the process, reducing problem solving to measurements, calculations, and costs. An approach to integrate the social and technical in engineering, in favor of the development of a critically conscious socio-technical engineer, is to alter the curriculum by incorporating social aspects at the forefront, rather than as an afterthought. In this paper, we write from our perspective as undergraduate engineering students and undergraduate research assistants to describe how engineering experiences and perceptions of engineering form and change due to institutional and curricular changes currently happening at our university. This study examines students describing their decisions to major in engineering, and how a department and classes designed specifically to tackle the socio-technical divide in engineering influenced students’ perception of engineering. We highlight how students emphasize the distinction between social and technical contexts in their thinking as they conceptualize what it means to be an engineer. The University of the Borderland (pseudonym) created a new energy class, with the goal of examining the global energy landscape and considering contemporary socio-technical challenges related to energy. The course was developed to provide an “integrated” approach to energy concepts that crossed disciplinary boundaries. We collected data from interviews to explore how they described their decision to major in engineering and tensions with subsequent descriptions of what is engineering. Preliminary results indicate that the socio-technical divide still exists in the engineering culture amongst these students. Although students talked about social aspects of engineering work, these are seen as lesser, rather than a fundamental part of, engineering problem solving. Students continued to make a distinction between “soft” skills and engineering skills, while simultaneously describing the “soft” skills necessary to be a “good” engineer. Despite the effort made by the professors to integrate the social aspect into engineering content, students may have emulated the disconnect due to social contexts still being less prioritized in the curriculum in lieu of concepts such as efficiency or cost. Additionally, although this specific course may be a step in the right direction, a single course cannot undo the signals being sent in the rest of the curriculum.
Palero Aleman, R., & Roberto, M. B., & Mejia, J. A., & Lord, S. M., & Gelles, L. A., & Chen, D., & Hoople, G. D. (2021, July), Mind the Gap: Exploring the Exploring the Perceived Gap Between Social and Technical Aspects of Engineering for Undergraduate Students Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. https://peer.asee.org/37507
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