Introducing young engineering students to the sociotechnical impact of technology
With the help of individual class modules, electrical engineering students relate technical content to issues of social justice, sustainability, and more.
Written by: Catharine June
June 1, 2023
Engineering students today want to solve problems – and not just those involving math. Their desire to have a positive impact on the world meshes with a society that has become more attuned to issues of environmental and social justice. Undergraduate engineering programs can’t even be accredited by ABET these days without ensuring that their students understand their own role in building a better world – a world that is “safer, more efficient, more inclusive and more sustainable” than ever before.
To help achieve this goal, a multi-institution team of researchers are developing several one-class course modules that can be easily incorporated into existing core courses in electrical engineering (EE), whether these courses are taught at large public research institutions like the University of Michigan (U-M), or small private colleges like the University of San Diego (USD). The team was recently awarded funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support their project, called “Collaborative Research: Integrating Sociotechnical Issues in Electrical Engineering Starting With Circuits.” Cindy Finelli, a professor at U-M, is co-directing the project with Susan Lord, a professor at USD.
“Including sociotechnical issues in a fundamental course such as Introduction to Circuits sends a powerful message to students about what is valued by the field,” said Finelli. “That message can have a significant impact on students, particularly those who have been historically marginalized in EE including women and students of color.”
“My students want to use their technical knowledge and service for good. But sometimes they don’t see any link between engineering and making a difference in the world. This will help change those preconceptions about what engineering is – and lead to more heterogeneity in the workforce, which we need to solve problems.” – Susan Lord
The project will result in one-session modules that weave basic technical concepts taught in an introductory circuits course with broader societal issues. These modules will highlight different subdisciplines in EE – with each one exposing students to some of the ethical issues that may arise in their own careers.
Examples of two different modules
Two modules have already been developed. The first moves from the topic of capacitors to conflict minerals, and the second from power and energy to electric vehicles (EVs).
Capacitors are found in most electronic circuits, and are often made using an element called tantalum. Unfortunately, tantalum is classified as a conflict mineral, meaning its sale is actively being used to fund groups that are known to violate human rights.
“We talk about capacitors, and we show them in the lab,” said Susan Lord, a professor at University of San Diego (USD), who first taught this module in 2018. “Then we take the next step and ask: Where do these come from? When I ask the students what we can do, researching alternative materials is a big suggestion that comes up. Reusing or recycling also comes up. Students may think twice before upgrading their cell phone if they think about the impact it may have on people in the countries where the minerals inside it are mined.”
U-M doctoral candidate Gracie Judge developed and recently piloted a new module focusing on electric vehicles, relying on her background in power and energy.
“EVs are a hot topic, and they present a lot of challenges that will require engineers on all fronts,” said Judge. “They get students excited.”
In this module, Judge first introduces voltage dividers and then moves into a discussion of EVs. She talks about a variety of related EV issues, including battery supply chains and the raw materials that go into them, the electrochemistry that go into their design, the power electronics connecting them, and the broader power system when connecting a large number of EVs.
Early student feedback has been very positive.
“I think that this type of module should be implemented in all core courses of an engineer’s major,” said USD junior Demili Pichay, who provided feedback about the module after a test run.
“Such a prioritization of sociotechnical issues in the curriculum teaches students that designing for humanity has the same level of importance as the technical skills themselves. I also think that viewing the technical skills that engineering students have to learn in a more real-world setting provides a lot of context for what is being taught.”
This approach to teaching sociotechnical issues could have a broad impact on the future careers of countless engineers. Introductory circuits courses are part of every electrical and computer engineer’s training, and they are often taken by students in related disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, materials science, and biomedical engineering. In addition, this style of incorporating sociotechnical modules into a core engineering course could be adopted by any instructor of STEM courses.
“We’re at a point where students and faculty alike are hungry for this kind of material. We’ll be able to give it to them.” – Cindy Finelli
Finelli and Lord expect that many schools will take advantage of these modules based solely on their desire to give students a taste of real-world sociotechnical issues – but there is another benefit as well. These modules actually help satisfy specific ABET requirements.
ABET accreditation happens every six years, and involves an extensive review of the curriculum. ABET teams evaluate not just what students are learning technically. They evaluate whether students are able to “recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.”
Susan Lord served as chair of Electrical Engineering for ten years before her current position as chair of a new department in Integrated Engineering; she is very familiar with the ABET process.
“ABET loves this,” said Lord. “They said it was forward thinking, student centered, and an excellent implementation of the social and global and ethical, because we’re doing it for real.”
Why hasn’t this been done before?
It takes resources to come up with meaningful modules that artfully combine the technical with the social and ethical. Lord was able to create her module focused on conflict minerals only after the USD Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering received a $2 million NSF grant as part of the Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) program in 2015. The award focused on developing Changemaking Engineers who are not only technically deep, but dedicated to social justice, humanitarian development and sustainability on a global scale. The grant included hiring postdoctoral researchers who helped Lord develop that first module back in 2018. One of those postdocs was an anthropologist.
This interdisciplinary collaboration was a key to the success of that module. The curricular transformation enabled by the RED grant has made an enormous impact on the direction and the future of the school and the faculty and students who are drawn to the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering.
The current NSF grant will allow Finelli and Lord to collaborate with at least four graduate students from around the country to develop additional modules, ending up with at least four, but possibly as many as 10 different modules.
“Students care about these issues, and society is more aware than ever before of how much injustice is out there,” said Finelli.
At Michigan, teams of faculty and staff are working on equity-centered engineering education through several fronts, including the Teaching Equity in Engineering (TEE) Center, established in 2022 through a $1.2M grant from the National Science Foundation. The TEE Center will develop a framework for teaching the social aspects of engineering, and train cohorts of professors, lecturers, and graduate student instructors on incorporating these topics into their courses.
Finelli’s and Lord’s new grant can be seen as a counterpart to this larger effort, and the resulting modules will exemplify how it can be done within the electrical engineering curriculum. The goals of their grant also typify Michigan Engineering’s people-first engineering approach to research and education.
How can I add more content to my course?
Anyone who has listened in on conversations about changing or even dropping specific courses in ECE is familiar with the angst this often causes in faculty. After all, in many cases they have spent years carefully selecting what material gets included in each class – especially for these critical foundational courses.
Lord says the same concern is often brought up when trying to advocate for incorporating active learning in a classroom.
“The truth is, everybody has one class period where they could do something else,” says Lord. “Also, covering and learning the material are not the same thing. You can cover anything in any amount of time, but does that mean anybody’s learning?”
Lord found additional time by reducing the number of problems in some areas. And because she uses active learning in the classroom, there is flexibility in how much time is needed to work on any particular problem.
Fred Terry, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan, will incorporate the conflict minerals module into the sophomore level “Intro to Electronic Circuits” course this coming fall.
“Incorporating the module into my lecture flow will be relatively easy since we routinely include some real-world examples to illustrate applications of the theory covered in the class,” said Terry. “This will just require updating this content and including the societal impact issues. Understanding the potential social impact of the technology they are working on may impact the technical choices they make as engineers.”
He’s also hoping students will be inspired to figure out how to re-engineer the system to use alternative materials – perhaps as graduate students one day, or within their future teams in industry.
It’s core, not just bookends
Sociotechnical content most often has found its way into either first-year intro to engineering courses, or senior capstone design courses. But that’s not enough to forge a strong connection to a student’s major.
“By having the content bookended, you lose this really important progression from start to end where you’re still connecting back constantly between the technical and social content,” said Judge. “It’s really exciting to think about what circuits classes could look like after coming through a more traditional one.”
“Students are developing their identity as an engineer in the middle two years of their education,” says Lord. “My students want to use their technical knowledge and service for good. But sometimes they don’t see any link between engineering and making a difference in the world. This will help change those preconceptions about what engineering is – and lead to more heterogeneity in the workforce, which we need to solve problems.”
For example, says Lord, the first airbags were only tested on large male bodies, resulting in extreme bodily harm – even death – to women and children. A more diverse team may not have made that error.
Once the modules have been piloted at their own institutions, Finelli and Lord will recruit faculty members from at least four additional institutions to do the same. And that’s just the start.
“We’re at a point where students and faculty alike are hungry for this kind of material,” said Finelli. “We’ll be able to give it to them.”