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The Places They Will Go: What Happens When Engineering Students Critically Reflect

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Promoting Communication Skills

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Gabrielle Orbaek White Swansea University

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After 10 years in the field of public health practice, Gabrielle has recently returned to academia as a PhD student at Swansea University in the UK. As a social scientist based in the College of Engineering, she is exploring opportunities to bring critical scholarship into engineering education, particularly in the context of sustainable development.

Prior to her return to academia, Gabrielle’s work took her Ethiopia, Wales and multiple states across the United States, where she worked to catalyze policy and systems-level change to improve health and well-being across communities. She prioritizes a social justice lens and systems approach in all her work.

Gabrielle received her bachelor’s degree from Rice University and a Master of Public Health with a concentration in health services organization and global health from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, Texas, USA.

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Patricia Xavier Swansea University

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Patricia is a water engineer with a background in both the private and public water sector. She has expertise in the design of flood alleviation schemes and wastewater networks. Patricia leads Academic Programme Enhancement and Development for the College of Engineering. With her background in industry, she is keenly aware that the sector-wide academisation and de-contextualisation of engineering education is leading to an engineering sector that struggles to relate theory to practice.

Patricia teaches creative design modules that give students tools and techniques (Human-centered design, VR collaborative design tools) to find their own brand of creativity in engineering design, while prompting students to consider how their individual privilege and biases impact on their design decisions.

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Catherine Groves Swansea University

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A Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Catherine draws on over 20 years’ operational management experience, to support her academic work. She remains involved in supporting and advising on the work of a number of social enterprises and charities locally. Her main areas of interest and research are in action learning, critical management, social enterprise and all things psychological. As an experienced coach, Catherine is particularly active in the area of leadership and team development, making innovative use of virtual reality technology and critical thinking to develop and enhance leadership competency in M level students. She is also a highly experienced psychometrician.

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Over the last 30 years, “engineering for development” initiatives have proliferated across the Western world and have become woven into the fabric of many higher education programs. Despite their good intentions, these programs have been critiqued due to lack of appropriate engagement with communities in co-creating solutions, failing to recognize the limitations of technology in achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs), as well as failing to interrogate structures and relations of power that impact on development interventions. In some cases, these efforts have reinforced social injustices.

There have been numerous efforts to embed social, political and economic context into engineering education, particularly in engineering for sustainable community development, so that engineers better understand the wider impacts that can result from their interventions. One such method is the integration of reflective exercises within engineering course work.

This paper traces the adoption of critical reflection as a core pedagogical strategy in an engineering management program focused on sustainable international development within one UK university. Critical reflection, which stems from a critical scholarly tradition, asks us to question our assumptions, recognize the role that power plays in shaping our social reality, and use reason to advance our emancipatory thinking and action.

Critical reflection is embedded within a program that recruits both engineers and non-engineers, with teaching and learning strategies drawn from the social sciences and humanities and integrated with engineering management and problem-based learning. The program connects students to a project partner in Sierra Leone or Zambia, the students work to understand their partners’ needs and assets and then develop an intervention plan consistent with the aims of the SDGs.

In this paper, we provide results of a critically reflexive thematic analysis to explore the nature of student reflections within the context of this interdisciplinary program. Evidence suggests a range of student interpretation of the purpose and application of critical reflection. Some are able expose unjust, implicit structures of power that operate within their team and/or project context. Some students continue to struggle to identify their own positionality and privilege. In addition, persistent gendered, racial and ethnic power dynamics seemed to emerge among students across two cohorts. However, the unique combination of critical reflection, interdisciplinary teamwork, real-world design work and intensive mentorship within this program appears to have created space for students to deepen their understanding of their positionality and privilege, and better understand how these issues play out within their practice.

Critical reflection may be a valuable pedagogical strategy for engineering higher education, particularly in concert with problem-based learning, that contributes to ongoing personal and professional development, and has the potential to mount meaningful challenge to unjust power dynamics in engineering for sustainable development.

Orbaek White, G., & Xavier, P., & Groves, C. (2020, June), The Places They Will Go: What Happens When Engineering Students Critically Reflect Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35356

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