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Not Engineering to Help, but Learning to (Un)learn: Integrating Research and Teaching on Epistemologies of Technology Desgin at the Margins

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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

Reflective & Critical Pedagogies

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1191.1 - 26.1191.22



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Paper Authors


Prashant Rajan Iowa State University

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Prashant Rajan is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of English and the Communication Studies Program at Iowa State University. He has a B. Eng. in polymer engineering from Pune University, an M.S.
in materials science and engineering from the University of Cinainnati, and a Organizational Communication with Ph. D. minors in research methods and critical-cultural theories from Purdue University. He is interested in: (a) learning about strategies to integrate conversations on compassion, empathy and social justice issues in the engineering education, (b) studying how information and communication technologies may be designed and implemented to improve food access, (c) researching methods for documenting and adding value to indigenous knowledge and grassroots innovations, and, (d) encouraging engagement between students, faculty and grassroots designers located in rural, semi-urban and urban communities. He can be contacted by email at

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Not engineering to help but learning to (un)learn: Integrating research and teaching on epistemologies of technology design at the marginsEngineering education scholarship and practice distinguishes between students, facultyand scholars, and, the communities they seek to serve by drawing on analytical‘dimensions-of-difference’ to construct inhabitants of the ‘Global South’ as marginalizedcommunities and populations. However, such differences are reported in curricular andscholarly documents as social, material, and cultural challenges to the conduct ofteaching and research in the field.Locating engineering education projects in sites occupied by marginalized communitiesand populations serves primarily to reinforce the misapprehension that the inhabitants ofsuch sites are illiterate, inept, incapable and therefore in need of aid or assistance fromresearchers, faculty and students. Drawing on the emerging literature on engineeringeducation and social justice, I examine the stated objectives, content, duration, andoutcomes of exemplar projects to develop a critique of the epistemological andaxiological assumptions and privileges of educators, scholars and students who engagewith communities that exist on the margins. I argue that as students, teachers, andresearchers, we equate the minds of those who occupy economic and social margins withthe possession of marginal intellect when we set out to help or aid them withoutrecognizing the validity of and valorizing their ways of knowing. Learning how membersof socially and economically marginalized communities apply their minds, mouths, handsand feet to solve locally occurring problems may help us interrogate our scholarly,pedagogical, and ethical objectives in a more reflexive manner.Drawing on ethnographic research and writing carried out across 11 months across 25rural, semi-urban, and urban communities in India and the United States, I demonstratehow we may begin to recognize and relinquish our positions of privilege by observinglocal epistemologies of technology design while apprenticing the otherwise marginalizedas they go about solving everyday problems. Such local epistemologies are articulatedthrough knowledge practices that are communicative, relational and situated in localsocial and material contexts. I contend that our task is to learn from those who weotherwise imagine as being in need of the knowledge, skills and expertise located inacademe.I employed a combination of open-ended interviews, guided conversations, andparticipant-observation of individual artisans, farmers, entrepreneurs, and their familymembers, friends and local collaborators to learn about the ways in which those who lackaccess to formal education or formal institutional support have developed novel,affordable technological solutions for problems in their local communities. My analysissuggests that individuals who develop technological innovations at the margins aremotivated by a perceived responsibility toward their local communities. Such grassrootsinnovators articulate this perceived responsibility by remaining sanguine about theimitation of their designs by others. Their openness in sharing design-related knowledgeis associated with the adoption of an empathic design process in which innovatorsleverage their social and material embeddedness in local communities to observe andreflect on users’ technology-related behavior in naturalistic settings. Grassrootsinnovators engage with human needs in specific geographical, economic, social, andcultural contexts and embody the potential for knowledge-rich, resource-poorcommunities to develop successful indigenous solutions to local problems. Grassrootsinnovations represent a community-based and user-driven model of technology designbased on empathy, sustainability and social responsibility that problematize rational,economic models of competitive innovation for profit that are prevalent in the literatureand industry. Finally, I outline my efforts over the past two years to incorporate thesefindings into the syllabi and classes I teach to engineering and liberal arts majors intechnical communication, technology and culture, and, leadership and teamwork. Thisoutline of my pedagogical efforts is provided so that colleagues who share an interest insocial justice may critique and improve my efforts at achieving coherent and sustainablepedagogical translations of my research on technology design at the grassroots. Asengineering education scholarship develops its transnational agenda, I also offer thisresearch design, my findings, and pedagogical efforts as points of entry for scholars andeducators to reconfigure the relationship between teachers, learners, and the contexts inwhich their interactions are situated.!

Rajan, P. (2015, June), Not Engineering to Help, but Learning to (Un)learn: Integrating Research and Teaching on Epistemologies of Technology Desgin at the Margins Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24528

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