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Teaching the Unbalanced Equation: Technical Opportunities and Social Barriers in the NAE Grand Challenges and Beyond

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Ethical Perspectives on the Grand Challenges of Engineering

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1406.1 - 22.1406.17



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Paper Authors


Dean Nieusma Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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Dean Nieusma is Assistant Professor in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His research investigates interdisciplinary technology design practices and strategies for integrating social and technical analysis in design pedagogy.

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Xiaofeng Tang Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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M.S./Ph.D. student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies.

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ASEE 2011 Abstract for panel session on NAE’s “Grand Challenges for Engineering”Teaching the Unbalanced Equation: Technical Opportunities and Social Barriers inthe NAE Grand Challenges and BeyondThe 2008 NAE report, “Grand Challenges for Engineering,” puts forward a particularvision of future civilization and engineering’s proper role in it, one that generallyresonates nicely (but is sometimes at odds with) many liberal-education-mindedengineering reform advocates. Most notably, the report signals the trend in engineeringtoward more explicit and direct engagement with enduring, complex social problems,offering a set of intriguing opportunities for exploring the relationship betweenengineering and its broader social context.One specific such opportunity is to scrutinize how “engineering”—as a complex domainof knowledge and practice—is bounded in the report, especially in how it sets apart “thetechnical” and “the social” as two sides of the social-problem-solving equation. Thispaper shows how the report frames the non-technical side of the equation as external to,impinging on, and often a barrier for engineering, whereas technical challenges, evenimmense ones, are framed as wholly within engineering’s dominion and as“opportunities” for both engineering and human civilization as a whole.The paper draws on engineering studies, history, and participatory design literatures toexplore both the explicit framing of the NAE’s Grand Challenges and the implicitassumptions underlying such framings. It also compares them with the prospects ofengineering presented in the 2004 NAE report, “The Engineer of 2020,” and the 2005NAE report, “Educating the Engineer of 2020.” Ultimately, the paper argues that the“Grand Challenges” report signals contemporary tensions in the profession as it seeks anexpansive domain of influence and relevance while simultaneously limiting whatengineers might reasonably be expected to be accountable for knowing and doing.Simultaneously, the report constrains the potential contribution of non-engineers merelyto supporting engineers’ activities and then adopting their outputs.The paper concludes by looking at the implications of this analysis for engineeringeducation and educational reform. Many engineering students, educators, and policymakers are reasonably enthusiastic about the shift in engineering toward greater attentionto social problem solving and its potential to engage students and increase enrollments,including by diversifying the engineering student pipeline, as suggested in the prior NAEreports. And yet the “Grand Challenges” report’s implied division of labor and thehierarchical separation between the technical (opportunities) and the social (barriers)reiterate long-standing curricular and cultural challenges in engineering.

Nieusma, D., & Tang, X. (2011, June), Teaching the Unbalanced Equation: Technical Opportunities and Social Barriers in the NAE Grand Challenges and Beyond Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18806

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