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Teaching Social Justice to Engineering Students

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Supporting Biomedical Engineering Students in Holistic Development

Tagged Division

Biomedical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Dianne Grayce Hendricks University of Washington

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Dr. Dianne Hendricks is a Lecturer in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering and the Director of the Engineering Communication Program at the University of Washington. She designs and teaches courses involving universal design, technical communication, ethics, and diversity, equity and inclusion. She co-founded HuskyADAPT (Accessible Design and Play Technology), where she mentors UW students in design for local needs experts with disabilities. She also leads STEM outreach activities for the UW community and local K-12 students involving toy adaptation for children with disabilities. Dianne holds a PhD in Genetics from Duke University, and BS in Molecular Biology and BA in Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Yuliana Flores Human Centered Design & Engineering, University of Washington

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Teaching Social Justice to Engineering Students

In this paper, we describe the design and implementation of a novel curriculum that explores social justice in a science and engineering context, with specific focus on race, gender, sexuality, and disability. We emphasize what students can do to advocate for and represent diverse peoples, and to promote social justice through science and engineering practice. Although applicable to all engineering majors, our work is particularly relevant to educators in biomedical engineering (BME), as the course is focused on several interdisciplinary topics in BME such as universal design, CRISPR genome editing, DNA forensics, sustainable technology, and pharmaceutical and vaccine development.

“Science and Engineering for Social Justice” is a 5-credit, writing-intensive, discussion-based course. In the first three offerings, the course had had an enrollment of approximately 30 students per offering, representing both STEM and non-STEM majors. Assignments include weekly readings, written reflections, class discussions, and in-class debates. In addition, students complete an individual final paper and a team project in which they design a scientific or engineering solution that promotes social justice.

Throughout the course, we explore these inter-related questions: 1. How do our cultural ideas about race, gender, disability and sexuality influence science and engineering knowledge and practice? 2. On the other hand, how does our science and engineering practice influence our cultural ideas about race, gender, disability and sexuality? 3. How can we use science and engineering to promote social justice for all people?

We explore social justice in a science and engineering context, with a focus on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). We discover why scientists and engineers must practice inclusive design and think broadly about the impact of their work on diverse populations, including ethical implications, potential inequities in access, and bias against underrepresented people.

Through a social justice lens, we explore the ethical implications involved in how technologies impact underrepresented people with specific focus on race, gender, sexuality, and disability. Topics include: 1. Current innovations and emerging technologies, such as: artificial intelligence, CRISPR genome editing, and DNA forensics; 2. Processes involved in a variety of engineering disciplines, such as: sustainable technology, energy production and storage, hazardous waste disposal, and pharmaceutical and vaccine development; 3. Interdisciplinary methodologies to work towards eliminating inequities, bias, and barriers, such as: inclusive design (e.g., curb cuts to allow wheelchair access on sidewalks and representative standards in transit, automotive, airline, and medical contexts); and increasing access to healthcare, technology, participation in government and elections, and infrastructure (clean water, energy, sanitation, and transportation).

Full curricular materials will be provided at the conference. Additional information on instructor background, motivation for designing this course, and early curriculum design can be found in our recent work-in-progress publications [1-3].

Assessment At the end of each course offering, we evaluated the impact of the course through examination of student self-reported data about their perceived ability to identify and approach social justice issues in science and engineering. In addition, students were asked to reflect on what they learned from the course that they can use in the future. Many students reported gaining confidence in their ability to communicate about social justice and apply their knowledge to future research or design projects. A number of students indicated the course helped them learn to advocate for themselves or other people. Excerpts from student responses will be discussed.

Conclusion Our aim is to make teaching about social justice issues more manageable for engineering educators. In this paper, we will provide instructor observations and analysis of student impact. We will provide full curricular materials such as assigned readings, lecture slides, and assignments.

Hendricks, D. G., & Flores, Y. (2021, July), Teaching Social Justice to Engineering Students Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015