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The Development of Sociotechnical Thinking in Engineering Undergraduates

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Kathryn Johnson Colorado School of Mines

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Kathryn Johnson is a Professor at the Colorado School of Mines in the Department of Electrical Engineering and is Jointly Appointed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. After starting her career with a research focus on wind energy control systems, first developed an interest in engineering education research in the Fall 2011 when she experienced Aalborg University's (Denmark) Problem-Based Learning philosophy. Since then, she has led two NSF grants in social justice and sociotechncial thinking in engineering education. She integrates her research areas in engineering education and wind energy control systems to help students understand the sociotechnical nature of engineering practice in her own technical field (control systems) as well as other electrical and mechanical engineering specialties via collaborations with colleagues at multiple universities.

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Jenifer Blacklock University of Colorado Boulder

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Dr. Jenifer Blacklock is the Director of the Western Colorado University and CU Boulder partnership program, supporting Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science degree programs.

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Stephanie Claussen San Francisco State University

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Stephanie Claussen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering at San Francisco State University. She previously spent eight years as a Teaching Professor in the Engineering, Design, and Society and the Electrical Engineering Departments at the Colorado School of Mines. She obtained her B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her M.S. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her current engineering education research interests include engineering students’ understanding of ethics and social responsibility, sociotechnical education, and assessment of engineering pedagogies.

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Jon Leydens Colorado School of Mines

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Dr. Jon A. Leydens is a Professor of Engineering Education Research in the Division of Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences at the Colorado School of Mines. Dr. Leydens’ research interests are focused on three areas of engineering education: social justice, sustainable community development, and communication.

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Barbara Moskal Colorado School of Mines


Janet Tsai University of Colorado Boulder

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Janet Y. Tsai is a researcher and teaching faculty in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on ways to encourage more students, especially women and those from nontraditional demographic groups, to pursue interests in the field of engineering. Janet assists in recruitment and retention efforts locally, nationally, and internationally, hoping to broaden the image of engineering, science, and technology to include new forms of communication and problem solving for emerging grand challenges. A second vein of Janet's research seeks to identify the social and cultural impacts of technological choices made by engineers in the process of designing and creating new devices and systems. Her work considers the intentional and unintentional consequences of durable structures, products, architectures, and standards in engineering education, to pinpoint areas for transformative change.

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Natalie Plata Colorado School of Mines

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Funded by the NSF Engineering Education and Centers division, this project has explored opportunities to bridge the sociotechnical divide between engineering education and engineering practice by examining how sociotechnical thinking develops in engineering students.

We initially conceptualized sociotechnical thinking as the interplay between relevant social and technical factors in the engineering problem definition and solution process. When considering or solving complex problems, practicing engineers examine both social and technical concerns. Yet actively integrating the social and technical concerns is less common in most engineering curricula. Jonassen has argued that the typical U.S. engineering curriculum limits students’ opportunities to develop sociotechnical thinking in an engineering context (Jonassen, 2014). Sociotechnical thinking is closely related to the concepts of macroethics (Herkert, 2005; Polmear et al., 2019), social justice (Riley, 2008; Baillie et al., 2012), and Downey’s Problem Definition and Solution process (Downey, 2005). Over the course of this project, we have explored the complexities of teaching and learning sociotechnical thinking. Specifically, we examined the manner in which sociotechnical thinking influences students’ development of their identities as engineers in three undergraduate classes located in three departments at two universities. Two of the classes are design-focused in the first and second years and the third is an upper-level engineering science core course. We have also summarized a range of student perceptions on sociotechnical thinking and what that range implies for pedagogies that promote sociotechnical thinking.

This poster and the associated paper will begin with an overview of the literature related to sociotechnical thinking. We will then describe the evolution and refinement of our courses and research questions throughout the implementation of this project. Our findings are based on four sources of data: student responses in focus groups, faculty reflection logs, assignment submissions, and surveys. Data from these sources were triangulated to address our research questions. Graphics will be used to support the visualization and analysis of the resultant data as well as draw attention our poster.

For most engineering faculty, consciously integrating the social with the technical in their classrooms is not a common practice. Yet understanding the interplay between the social and the technical is essential for students to succeed in engineering (Stevens et al., 2014; Jonassen, 2014; Trevelyan, 2014). Through this work, we illustrate how this complex and important area of understanding may be integrated into students’ engineering coursework. Our paper and poster will highlight both the benefits of and opportunities for sociotechnical integration. Through examples of our own classroom, we will illuminate pathways for success. We invite interested instructors and researchers to join this growing, exciting area of research, addressing sociotechnical reasoning in engineering education.


Baillie, C., A. Pawley, and D. Riley, Eds., Engineering and Social Justice: In the University and Beyond. Ashland, United States: Purdue University Press, 2012.

Downey, G., “Are engineers losing control of technology?: From ‘Problem Solving’ to ‘Problem Definition and Solution’ in engineering education,” Chemical Engineering Research and Design, vol. 83, no. 6, Jun. 2005, pp. 583–595.

Herkert, J., “Ways of thinking about and teaching ethical problem solving: Microethics and macroethics in engineering,” Science and Engineering Ethics, 11: 373-385, 2005.

Jonassen, D., “Engineers as problem solvers,” in Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 103–118.

Polmear, M., A. Bielefeldt, D. Knight, and N. Canney, “Analysis of Macroethics Teaching Practices and Perceptions in Engineering: Comparison of Educators Within and Outside the United States,” European Journal of Engineering Education, 2019.

Riley, D., Engineering and Social Justice, San Rafael, CA: Morgan and Claypool Publishers, 2008.

Stevens, R., A. Johri, and K. O’Connor, “Professional engineering work,” in Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 119–137.

Trevelyan, J. P., 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, 2014.

Johnson, K., & Blacklock, J., & Claussen, S., & Leydens, J., & Moskal, B., & Tsai, J., & Plata, N. (2022, August), The Development of Sociotechnical Thinking in Engineering Undergraduates Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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