June 15, 2019
June 15, 2019
June 19, 2019
Liberal Education/Engineering & Society
Within the United States, most engineering programs are dominated by engineering science courses that consist primarily of decontextualized (or minimally contextualized), closed-ended problems that fail to illustrate how sociotechnical factors impact problem definition and solution processes. Thus, the engineering curricula reinforce the notion that technical problem-solving can be separated from from the social context in which the problem emerged. Students within such curricula often incorrectly expect engineering and social problems to be separate from each other, thus leaving them ill-equipped to think critically about the ambiguity of sociotechnical problems that they will encounter in the workforce. When a practicing engineer fails to consider social contexts that shape and are shaped by their designs, the stakeholders that this engineer serves may suffer, the engineer’s company may experience costly project delays or cancelations, and the reputation of the engineering profession may be damaged.
We hypothesize here that many engineering students are ill-prepared to approach the solutions of engineering problems using a sociotechnical framework. Upon graduation, these engineers may believe that their job is to solve technical problems without considering social impacts or consequences. In this paper, we will discuss the results from administering an instrument developed and designed to measure sociotechnical thinking [BLINDED] by engineering students at two Western U. S. universities. In brief, prior research on engineering practice accentuates why sociotechnical thinking matters. For instance, one decade-long study involved over 300 interviews with practicing engineers, survey data from nearly 400 engineers, and multiple years of participant observations of engineers at work. That study concluded that those who remained in and found satisfaction in engineering were those who recognized the important interplays between technical and social dimensions of framing and solving problems [Trevelyan, 2014]. Although this study was conducted in Australasian contexts, studies in US and UK contexts have come to similar conclusions: engineering is a sociotechnical field of practice [Stevens, Johri, & O’Connor, 2014; Martin, Maytham, Case, & Fraser, 2005]. Despite such studies, engineering courses frequently continue to separate the social and the technical, which only exacerbates the disconnect and differences between engineering education systems and engineering practice.
In a prior paper, we described the process that was used to develop a survey to measure sociotechnical thinking in engineering education [BLINDED]. This survey was administered to a total of 543 students who were in their first, second or third year of engineering preparation in the Spring and Fall of 2018. The courses range from a first-year introductory design course to a junior-level core engineering science course. All appropriate human subjects procedures were followed.
For each administration, students were provided with sufficient time to complete the survey in-class either via paper or online. In the Spring 2018, the survey was offered slightly later in the semester (week 7) than in Fall 2018 (weeks 1-5). In both semesters, the survey was administered prior to any classroom discussions concerning sociotechnical thinking. The purpose of this administration was to gather baseline data or data that would describe students’ sociotechnical thinking before receiving instruction that addresses or develops their understanding of this concept. In the future, we will use this instrument to measure how students’ sociotechnical thinking changes from before to after an intervention. A primary contribution of the current paper is understanding what engineering students know intuitively or based on prior experiences about sociotechnical thinking. Additionally, the inclusion of two universities and multiple education levels supports a comparison of sociotechnical thinking as it occurs in these different settings.
Thematic coding methods for open-ended student survey responses focused on statements related to sociotechnical thinking. Two trained research members coded the qualitative survey responses separately, and each wrote a summary analytic memo. The two researchers then compared thematic codes and memos, and wrote a consensus memo.
Students attend different universities, come from different backgrounds, and are in different stages of their undergraduate education. Yet, based on preliminary analysis of the Spring 2018 data, there were no apparent differences in students’ understanding of sociotechnical thinking between the institutions. There was not an obvious change across educational levels from Freshman to Junior, suggesting that sociotechnical thinking may not be a product of maturation. However, our Spring 2018 data was drawn from 53 survey responses, while we have an additional 490 responses to be analyzed for Fall 2018, which may allow us to draw more significant conclusions.
Themes in students’ responses emerged from the qualitative analysis of the survey data. In Spring 2018, the three most relevant themes were: sociotechnical integration/dualism, engineers’ social responsibility/privilege and power, and motivations and influence on perspectives. Most student survey responses could be categorized within these themes. In the full paper, detailed examples will be provided of each and the prevalence of these themes will be discussed.
An overarching purpose of the survey is to be able to detect and measure changes over time in student perspectives on sociotechnical thinking and social responsibility of engineers. Thus, we will also report on quantitative and qualitative differences between the Fall 2018 early and late-semester surveys, as well as comparing the Fall 2018 data to Spring 2018 data. Similarities and differences across classes and universities will be further explored. We will also discuss the use of these surveys results in a formative manner for our research, since they provide valuable feedback on how students perceive the teaching of sociotechnical thinking to engineers. Finally, we will discuss avenues for ongoing research and gaps in our knowledge that can be gleaned from this single instrument.
References Martin, Rosanna, Bryan Maythan, Jennifer Case, and Duncan Fraser, (2005) “Engineering graduates’ perceptions of how well they were prepared for work in industry,” European Journal of Engineering Education, 30(2), 167-180. Stevens, R., Johri, A., & O’connor, K. (2014) “Professional engineering work,” Cambridge handbook of engineering education research, 119-137. Trevelyan, J, (2014) The making of an expert engineer: how to have a wonderful career creating a better world and spending lots of money belonging to other people, Leiden, The Netherlands: CRC Press.
Johnson, K., & Leydens, J. A., & Erickson, J., & Boll, A. M., & Claussen, S., & Moskal, B. M. (2019, June), Sociotechnical Habits of Mind: Initial Survey Results and their Formative Impact on Sociotechnical Teaching and Learning Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. https://peer.asee.org/33275
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