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Rethinking Technocentrism: Case Studies of Three Engineering Students’ Social Sciences Approaches to the Sanitation Crisis

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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

26.1339.1 - 26.1339.13



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Paper Authors


Devika Patel Stanford University

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Devika is a third year undergraduate at Stanford University studying Mechanical Engineering: Product Design. She is an undergraduate researcher at the Kometsky Global Collaboratory, where she is looking at working with taboos in hygiene and sanitation in engineering contexts.

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Jonathan Edward Pang Stanford University

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I am an undergraduate majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in education at Stanford University. Apart from design and engineering, I am particularly interested in education as well as the intersection between engineering and education. Over this past summer, these interests were fueled by working at the Kozmetsky Global Collaboratory with paper co-authors Dr. Hariharan, Devika Patel, and Sarah Salameh. In my spare time I enjoy watching sports and films as well as doing sleight of hand tricks.

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Sarah Salameh Stanford University

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Rethinking Technocentrism: Case Studies of Two Engineering Students’ Social Sciences Approaches to the Sanitation Crisis According to the WHO, 2.4 billion people lack access to proper sanitation resources.Integral to this alarming statistic is the absence of sanitation technology. Current engineeringinitiatives have responded to this challenge with toilet fairs and competitions showcasing cutting-edge technologies in the sanitation sector. That is, engineers have often approached thissanitation crisis as well as other world problems from a technocentric worldview--the philosophythat considers technology as capable of solving human problems (O’Riordan, 1981). Indeedtechnocentrism is a term mostly associated with human-environmental problems but can beapplied to broader issues as well. Technocentrism speaks to the current outlook of engineeringeducation. We as engineering students are trained to design and build technical solutions forworld problems. Furthermore, this focus within engineering education parallels our society, inwhich technology is increasingly important in mediating the way we interact with the world andits problems. This paper focuses on an account and synthesis of two engineering students’ experiencesworking in a summer engineering internship of building a solution to end open defecation inrural Gujarat, India. The case studies will explore how the students entered the internship withthe technocentric preconception, yet, after articulating their care statements -- an understandingof what the students value in the context of this problem space -- they broadened their focus to agreater consideration of the socio-cultural aspects of the community they were working with. Both students began the internship with the expectation of designing and prototyping atoilet augmentation as a technological intervention to the sanitation crisis. At the beginning ofthe internship, the students expressed their care statements: one student was interested inpersuasion, and the other in healthcare. After conducting a literature review, they began to seedifferent approaches to addressing the issues. Reflecting on their care statements in light of theresearch triggered a shift in their approach. They then realized that they cared more abouttackling the problem than designing an engineering product. Consequently, one student decidedto explore educational interventions, while the other delved into cultural taboos research relatingto the problem space: sanitation. Our paper addresses the topic of liberal education in action through multidisciplinaryprojects and ethics from two students’ perspectives. These case studies are put into conversationwith the overarching discussions surrounding technocentrism and the importance of inspectingand analyzing the way engineering students reconcile technocentrism with ways of thinkingutilized in liberal education. This paper concludes with a call to the engineering educationcommunity to respond to the deficits faced by engineering students aspiring to work on societalproblems globally.

Patel, D., & Pang, J. E., & Salameh, S. (2015, June), Rethinking Technocentrism: Case Studies of Three Engineering Students’ Social Sciences Approaches to the Sanitation Crisis Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24676

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