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One Paragraph and a Few Simple Questions - Giving Statics Problems Human Context

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Addressing the Human Dimension in Teaching Statics, Dynamics, Mechanics

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Sean Moseley Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Sean Moseley is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He received a B.S. from The Georgia Institute of Technology and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

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The engineering problem solving method (EPS), as it is commonly and classically taught, tends to remove the human and social context from consideration. While the EPS method produces well-posed problems with easily checked solutions, it unintentionally reinforces the worldview that engineering is value-free profession where the rigor of one’s technical analysis is more important than the context in which engineering is practiced (Downey and Lucena, 2006). Recognizing this consequence, a growing body of literature calls for changing engineering education to be more human-centered through awareness of the limitations of purely technical solutions (Lucena, Schneider, and Leydens, 2010; Riley, 2008; NAE, 2005).

Changing one’s approach to teaching in this way poses big challenges: how to add ideas to an overstuffed curriculum—particularly ideas that involve a disciplinary background different from what makes us comfortable, what kinds of human and social context to consider, how to not trivialize such concerns by doing a bad job, etc. Perhaps the question is not “What happens if this goes badly?” but “What are the consequences of not even trying?”

As a first encounter with EPS, Statics courses are a place where efforts to introduce human and social context might be particularly effective—before years of core technical courses have established the priority of the technical over everything else. However, any change to the standard way of teaching Statics must acknowledge that the course is already filled with content, as Statics is often a prerequisite for all subsequent solid mechanics courses. Simple, easy changes are a good place to start.

A first attempt to acknowledge context in Statics problems might be as easy as adding one paragraph at the beginning and asking a few simple questions at the end. This paper will give a few different examples of what this approach to context might look like. The paragraph will authentically introduce the human and social context in which Statics problems arise, acknowledging that simplifications are being made to make the situation well-posed. Next, the Statics problem will be presented, much as it is usually done. Finally, the few simple questions will prompt students to consider the impact of the result—who, what, why, and how questions.

The goal is not to establish a definitive set of examples, but to demonstrate that acknowledging context in a core engineering course is feasible without wholesale rethinking of the content. Hopefully, this paper will encourage Statics instructors, and engineering instructors in general, to consider taking steps to balance the EPS approach with acknowledgement of the human and social context in which engineering work takes place.

Moseley, S. (2017, June), One Paragraph and a Few Simple Questions - Giving Statics Problems Human Context Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28719

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