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The Socio-Technical Connection is Plastic, but Only When Design Starts from Need Formulation

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Pedagogies of Making and Design

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Geetanjali R. Date Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

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Geetanjali Date is a doctoral research scholar at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, T. I. F. R. India. There she is a part of the Learning Sciences Research Group led by Dr. Sanjay Chandrasekharan. Her research area is at the confluence of Engineering Design Education, Engineering Studies, and Cognition and Learning Sciences.

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Sanjay Chandrasekharan Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

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Cognitive Scientist working in Learning Sciences.

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Background Many current engineering problems, particularly engineering for social equity and ecological sustainability, require a close understanding of the social and environmental contexts. Recent research suggests that engineering education overemphasizes the technical aspects, and encourages externalization of the social and environmental aspects. This has led to a two-fold gap. One, students lack knowledge of the social and problem contexts as well as requirements and ways to address them. Particularly lacking are problem identification and problem framing skills. Second, students develop values that are technology-centered, and they move away from the social and environmental components of the engineering problem space. These gaps limit students' abilities to develop socially-engaged engineering solutions. Engineering is a socio-technical enterprise, and flexibility / plasticity in the connection between society and technology, that is, a room for negotiation in the interaction of the two is essential for any innovation in technological solutions. Students estranged from the social assume the corporate structure as the default socio-technical connection, where the focus of innovation is directed towards profitability and economies of scale, leaving no room for innovation directed towards broader problems of the society.

Objective We seek to characterize how classroom knowledge of the engineering design process deals with social and environmental context, by contrasting the formal engineering design process with that of a formally trained engineer solving grassroots engineering problems in rural areas, and (elsewhere) a grassroots innovator (not trained in engineering, but solving engineering problems in rural interiors).

Design/Method The case study we report here focuses on the socio-technical connection, examining whether/how the social and environmental factors influence and interact with the design of a formally trained engineering professional (EP). The data are collected through interviews, field observation, and secondary data sources. Using one of the widely referenced models of the engineering design process as a lens, we look at the nature of EP's process of designing and building micro-hydro power stations in remote mountain villages, for domestic use and income-generation.

Results In this historical analysis of EP's design process, we find that the problem definition and understanding of the requirements at the grassroots is very complex, and the needs are not always explicitly stated or directly technical. In EP's case, the social and environmental factors that influence the design process go from being embedded and implicit, to being explicitly stated in the task specifications. The material and social structures interact with the technical, influencing it, and in the process, the needs and constraints emerge and become clear. The detail design stage that engineering students are groomed for, and even the conceptual and embodiment design stages, are constantly shaped by the problem definition. The connection between technology and society is thus fluid or plastic, and only by beginning at the problem formulation / definition stage can alternate and better solutions be designed.

Conclusions / Next steps We argue that the socio-technical connection, and how it is articulated and negotiated, as well as its recurring interaction with all stages of the engineering design process, needs to be explicitly depicted and elaborated as part of formal engineering design. Rather than work with technical and user requirements, students need to be encouraged to go out and identify problems and develop their own task specifications, which are social specifications. This will help the students understand that the technology and society connection is plastic, and encourage them to explore and expand it beyond the currently dominant models.

Keywords: engineering design education; design process; sustainability; equity; case study; socio-technical; community; problem formulation; need identification

Date, G. R., & Chandrasekharan, S. (2016, June), The Socio-Technical Connection is Plastic, but Only When Design Starts from Need Formulation Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27019

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