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What Are They Talking About? Depth of Engineering Student Sociotechnical Thinking in a Technical Engineering Course

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division Technical Session 5

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Natasha Andrade University of Maryland, College Park

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Dr. Natasha Andrade is a Lecturer in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Maryland College Park. Her responsibilities include teaching various undergraduate courses in environmental engineering (such as Engineering for Sustainability and Environmental Engineering Science) and conducting engineering education research. She has specialized in redesigning engineering courses to make them learner-centered and based on active learning activities. More recently, she started work on engineering education research that aims to effectively incorporate socio-technical thinking in required technical courses. Her discipline research is focused on the production of stabilized biosolids, its use as a fertilizer and its impact on environmental pollution concerning organic contaminants. She recently has started work on Amazonic mercury contamination due to illegal mining.

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David Tomblin University of Maryland, College Park

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David is the director of the Science, Technology and Society program at the University of Maryland, College Park. He works with STEM majors on the ethical and social dimensions of science and technology. David also does public engagement with science and technology work with government agencies such as NASA, DOE, and NOAA.

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In the last decade, there have been several efforts from engineering faculty to include social justice and socio-technical thinking in the engineering curriculum. For example, Leydens and Lucena report several examples of courses at different universities that aim to make social justice more visible in the engineering curriculum 1. Creating new courses and adding modules to existing ones can be extremely valuable interventions. However, making social-technical thinking an integral part of existing technical courses is also a necessary approach to reduce the perception that “social” issues are not equally valued in the engineering 1,2. The efficacy of such efforts has not been widely tested. This paper builds on our analysis of an effort to incorporate socio-technical systems thinking into a required civil and environmental engineering sophomore level course to test whether such interventions effectively bridge the socio-technical divide in engineering curriculum 3. Our previous study found that class activities spurred more reflection on social factors that influence technological development, increased awareness of stakeholder diversity, and encouraged appreciation of socio-technical system complexity. While the initial analysis detected an increased level of second-order socio-technical thinking, it didn’t systematically consider the specific socio-political content of student responses to the activities. Our current analysis employs open coding of student work to evaluate if, when, and how students are able to transcend instrumental socio-technical systems thinking about technology, which narrowly defines social relationships with technology in terms of first-order efficiency and productivity outcomes 4,5. These sorts of outcomes are perceived as value-free and depoliticized, thus rhetoric that comfortably fits into the practice of engineering 6.

Andrade, N., & Tomblin, D. (2019, June), What Are They Talking About? Depth of Engineering Student Sociotechnical Thinking in a Technical Engineering Course Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33551

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