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When Engineering Students Write about Waste Electronics: Trends in how they Think of Global Impacts

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Experience in Assessing Technological Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1369.1 - 23.1369.17



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Paper Authors


Denise M Wilson University of Washington

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Denise Wilson received the B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1988 and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1989 and 1995, respectively. She also holds an M.Ed. from the University of Washington (2008) and has worked in industry (Applied Materials). She is currently a faculty member with the Electrical Engineering Department, University of Washington, Seattle, and she was previously with the University of Kentucky, Lexington, in a similar position from 1996 to 1999. Her research interests are split between technical investment in biological and chemical-sensing microsystems and equivalent interest in engineering education, with particular emphasis on affective and metacognitive factors that influence student success in STEM fields.

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Cheryl Allendoerfer University of Washington

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Dr. Allendoerfer is a Research Scientist in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington.

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Ryan C. Campbell University of Washington

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Ryan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, Seattle, where faculty expertise from the Colleges of Engineering and Education have enabled him to create a self-designed degree program in the emerging field of Engineering Education Research via the Graduate School’s interdisciplinary Individual Ph.D. Program. Ryan holds an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), Republic of Korea, and a B.S. in Engineering Science from Colorado State University, Fort Collins. Ryan’s research interests include: engineering education, ethics, humanitarian engineering, and computer modeling of electric power and renewable energy systems.

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Elizabeth Burpee


Mee Joo Kim University of Washington- Seattle

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Mee Joo Kim is a Ph.D. student in College of Education at University of Washington. She received her M.Ed. in Social Foundations (2009) from the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia. Her research interests include academic and civic engagement of college students majoring in STEM disciplines.

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When Engineering Students Speak About Waste Electronics: Trends in How They Feel, Think, and Act on Global ImpactsIn the field of engineering, the challenge of teaching engineering ethics in a meaningful andlasting way, leading to self-motivated lifelong learning on the part of students, has beenaddressed in a myriad of ways across many engineering curricula. In the field of engineeringethics education, little is known regarding how students “care” about issues, as well as how theywant to act on that “care” when exposed to ethical issues associated with their profession. Wasteelectronics is one such ethics-laden topic associated with the professional activity of many typesof engineers, particularly computer and electrical engineers.In a pilot study, we evaluated 92 writing samples on the topic of waste electronics from a rangeof engineering students (sophomores, juniors, and seniors) in an introductory circuits class at alarge public research institution (RU-VH). Specifically, we asked students to read a journalarticle on waste electronics and recycling and write a reflection which (a) speaks to the mostimportant negative impacts of waste electronics on ecosystems and public health, and (b)provides a personal opinion on what the student believes the engineer’s responsibility is inlimiting the amount of improper disposal of consumer electronics. We evaluated these writingsamples not only on basic literacy, but also on the student’s ability to capture ethical and criticalliteracies in their exposition.All writing samples were graded according to a four level rubric (novice, developing, competent,and exemplary) with five separate criteria (Table 1): two levels of basic literacy (writingquality), technological literacy (formatting and professionalism), as well as critical and ethicalliteracy. We find that while two thirds of students perform at developing (C-grade) or worse inbasic literacies, 90% of all the students achieve a competent or higher grade in both ethical andcritical literacy. In other words, students seem to both care about the issue and understand itscomplexity, but the majority are unable to articulate their position or solution to the problem in aprofessional and organized manner. Furthermore, while students express authentic and multiplelevels of caring about the impact of consumer electronics on the waste stream, they have littleinsight into how to practically address the problem within the constraints and demands of the realworld.These results speak to a gap in engineering education between ethics instruction and socialactivism. While engineering students are generally receptive to and interested in critical andethical issues associated with their profession, they often lack the tools necessary to contribute tosolutions in problems that have macro-ethics implications. This deficiency is compounded bychallenges posed when writing outside of well-structured technical venues (such as thelab/design project reports typically required of undergraduates).Reference:Cook, K.C. (2002). Layered literacies: A theoretical framework for technical communicationpedagogy. Technical Communication Quarterly, 11(1), 5-12. Table 1: Assessment of Student Writing on the Topic of Waste Electronics Literacy* Description Elements of Exemplary Performance Basic Fundamental writing quality • Minimal error in grammar, spelling, word (2 types) including grammar, spelling, choice, and sentence structure and organization • An organized essay format with a strong introduction and conclusion. Body paragraphs are relevant and supporting Technological Attention to format; use of • Readable professional font (1 type) technology to produce a • Well formatted tables and lists (if applicable) professional looking manuscript • Good title placement • Appropriate spacing Ethical Ability to address the • Identification of multiple stakeholders and a (1 type) underlying ethical issues and discussion of how they are impacted by the professional responsibility issue invoked by the author’s point of • Mention of relevant ethical standards (e.g. view IEEE, NSPE) • A discussion of the ethics involved in the issue and a comprehensive explanation of the author’s ethical point of view Critical Ability to recognize the power Author is realistic in her/his suggested solution(s), (1 type) struggles/barriers that limit the balances stakeholders that have power with those success of the author’s who have little or no voice, and recognizes power position/solution to a problem struggles and barriers involved in finding a solution* Based on the six primary literacies of technical writing as described by Cook (2002)

Wilson, D. M., & Allendoerfer, C., & Campbell, R. C., & Burpee, E., & Kim, M. J. (2013, June), When Engineering Students Write about Waste Electronics: Trends in how they Think of Global Impacts Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22754

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