skip to main content


This content will become publicly available on June 1, 2024

Title: Shaping the macro-ethical reasoning of engineers through deliberate cultural practices
Most engineering ethics education is segregated into particular courses that, from a student’s perspective, can feel disconnected from the technical education at the center of their programs. In part because of this disconnect, several immersive programs designed to train engineering students in socio-technical systems thinking have emerged in the U.S. in the past two decades. One pedagogical goal of these programs is to provide alternative ideologies and practices that counter dominant cultural paradigms that marginalize macroethical thinking and social justice perspectives in engineering schools. In theory, longer-term immersion in such programs can help students overcome these harmful ideologies. However, because of the difficult nature of studying cultural change, very few studies have attempted to provide a thick description of how these alternative cultural practices are influencing student perspectives on engineering practices. Our study offers a rare glimpse at student uptake of these practices in a multi-year Science, Technology, and Society (STS) living-learning program. Our study explores whether and how cultural practices within an STS program help students develop and sustain the resources for using a socio-technical systems thinking approach to engineering practice. We grounded our work in a cultural practices framework from Nasir and Kirshner [1] which roughly understands practice to be “a patterned set of actions performed by members of a group based on common purposes and expectations, with shared cultural values, tools, and meanings” ([2, p. 99] as cited in [3]). Our descriptions of collective enactments of cultural practices are grounded in accounts of classroom events from researcher fieldnotes and reflections in student interviews. Looking across the enactment of practices in classrooms and students’ interpretations of these events in interviews allows us to describe the multiplicity of meanings that students distill from these activities. This paper will present on multiple cultural practices salient to students we have identified in this STS community, for example: cultivating an ethics of care, making the invisible visible, understanding systems from multiple perspectives, and empowering students to develop moral stances as citizens and scientists/engineers in society. Because of the complexity of the interplay between the scaffolding of the STS program’s pedagogy and the emergence of these four themes, we chose to center “cultivating an ethics of care” in this analysis and relationally explore the other three themes through it. Ethics of care manifests in two basic ways in the data. Students talk about how an ethics of care is part of the STS program community and how the STS program fosters the need for an ethics of care toward communities outside the classroom through human-centered engineering design.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1916929
NSF-PAR ID:
10451346
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Paper presented at 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Baltimore , Maryland
Format(s):
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Many studies show that college engineering students’ sense of ethical and social responsibility declines over the course of their college careers (Cech, 2014; Canny & Bielefeldt, 2015; Schiff et al., 2021). One reason is that many college engineering programs and courses reinforce the social-technical dualism, which treats social and macro-ethical issues as distinct from the technical work more often associated with “real” engineering. Some programs, like the Science, Technology and Society (STS) program at [institution made confidential for review], attempt to challenge this dualism by supporting the integration of social and technical considerations within students’ design work and by asking students to grapple with the complex ethics of their work. However, this program is still embedded within a department, university, and society that subscribes to harmful ideologies such as technocracy, capitalism, and meritocracy, which value efficiency, surveillance, and control. These ideologies and their associated values constrain the imagination for what is possible in design work, for instance, by relying on technological ‘quick fixes’ to address complex social problems or by propping up large corporations as innovators, without adequately grappling with the harm that these corporations might be doing. This cultural reality creates an uphill battle for educators attempting to support engineering students’ sense of social consciousness and ethical responsibility. Thus, this study attempts to understand how engineering students’ imaginations are being constrained by societal structures and ideologies and when do they “break free” from these constraints? In this paper, we present a preliminary analysis of first-year STS students collaboratively reasoning through a simulated design scenario about a small community store facing challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic (adapted from Gupta, 2017). Using discourse and narrative analysis, we analyzed multiple focus group interviews to identify what we call “co-occurrences,” or ideas that tend to hang together in participants’ reasoning. Examining these co-occurrences provides insight into the variety of ways socio-technical imaginaries play out in students’ design thinking. 
    more » « less
  2. As the field of engineering faces looming societal issues, it becomes particularly important to foster more “holistic engineers” with systems-thinking skills and an understanding of the macro-ethical impacts of their work (Canny and Bielefeldt, 2015) Macro-ethics here refers to the collective social responsibility of engineers as a profession, as opposed to micro-ethics, which concern activities within the profession (Herkert, 2005). However, college students studying engineering in the United States exhibit a decline in concern for public welfare over the course of their education (Cech, 2014) as well as a tendency to orient to micro-ethical issues over macro-ethical issues (Schiff et al, 2020). Scholars attribute these trends to ideologies pervasive in engineering spaces, such as depoliticization of engineering practice, technocracy, and meritocracy (Cech, 2014; Slaton, 2015). While Cech (2014) argues these status quo ideologies in engineering are maintained by a “culture of disengagement” that decreases interest in public welfare, Radoff et al. (2022) find indications that additional factors contribute to engaged students’ reproduction of such ideologies. They find, for example, instances of students in reproducing dehumanizing narratives regarding low-income communities, despite their enrollment in a voluntary program premised on cultivating socially responsible STEM professionals. This finding suggests that even students who remain “engaged” to some degree can reproduce status quo ideologies which Cech (2014) attributes to disengagement. One explanation as to why a macro-ethically “engaged” student may fail to attend to the social aspects of design follows a deficit narrative: a lack of knowledge or ability. We see this assumption in comparisons of students’ and experts’ design processes, where the areas in which students behave differently than experts are interpreted as areas that require additional instruction on how to behave more like the experts (Atman et al., 2008). This presupposition of students’ lacking knowledge or skills, however, backgrounds contextual or interactional factors. Philip et al. (2018) challenges such assumptions in their analysis of a classroom discussion on the ethics of drone warfare, which exemplifies students’ convergence to American nationalism, but with the framing that this convergence is interactionally created, rather than the result of individual students’ stable, dogmatic beliefs. However, because their analysis is limited to the scope of a single class discussion, the extent to which students’ performance is situated in said class remains unclear. In this paper, we attempt to understand the ways in which students reproduce ideologies dominant in engineering, as well as the situated nature of students’ ideological orientations in collaborative work. We consider a case study focus group from Radoff et al. (2022) where students reasoned through a hypothetical design scenario about a grocery store. We show how, despite many opportunities where problematic status-quo narratives are momentarily challenged, the students generally reject the challenges, not by arguing against them, but by positioning them outside the scope of their work. Further, we show how these moments of rejection are tightly coupled with attempts to emulate the multinational technology company Amazon. Finally, we use additional data to illustrate the situatedness of one student’s performance, and theorize the influence of Amazon as a “strange attractor” in this student’s situated reasoning. 
    more » « less
  3. This research paper focuses on the effect of recent national events on first-year engineering students’ attitudes about their political identity, social welfare, perspectives of diversity, and approaches to social situations. Engineering classrooms and cultures often focus on mastery of content and technical expertise with little prioritization given to integrating social issues into engineering. This depoliticization (i.e., the removal of social issues) in engineering removes the importance of issues related to including diverse individuals in engineering, working in diverse teams, and developing cultural sensitivity. This study resulted from the shift in the national discourse, during the 2016 presidential election, around diversity and identities in and out of the academy. We were collecting interview data as a part of a larger study on students attitudes about diversity in teams. Because these national events could affect students’ perceptions of our research topic, we changed a portion of our interviews to discuss national events in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms and how students viewed these events in relation to engineering. We interviewed first-year undergraduate students (n = 12) who indicated large differences of attitudes towards diverse individuals, experiences with diverse team members, and/or residing at the intersection of multiple diversity markers. We asked participants during the Spring of 2017 to reflect on the personal impact of recent national events and how political discussions have or have not been integrated into their STEM classrooms. During interviews students were asked: 1) Have recent national events impacted you in any way? 2) Have national events been discussed in your STEM classes? 3) If so, what was discussed and how was it discussed? 4) Do these conversations have a place in STEM classes? 5) Are there events you wish were discussed that have not been? Inductive coding was used to analyze interviews and develop themes that were audited for quality by the author team. Two preliminary themes emerged from analysis: political awareness and future-self impact. Students expressed awareness of current political events at the local, national and global levels. They recognized personal and social impacts that these events imposed on close friends, family members, and society. However, students were unsure of how to interpret political dialogue as it relates to policy in engineering disciplines and practices. This uncertainty led students to question their future-selves or careers in engineering. As participants continued to discuss their uncertainty, they expressed a desire to make explicit connections between politics and STEM and their eventual careers in STEM. These findings suggest that depoliticization in the classroom results in engineering students having limited consciousness of how political issues are relevant to their field. This disconnect of political discourse in the classroom gives us a better understanding of how engineering students make sense of current national events in the face of depoliticization. By re-politicising STEM classrooms in a way relevant to students’ futures, educators can better utilize important dialogues to help students understand how their role as engineers influence society and how the experiences of society can influence their practice of engineering. 
    more » « less
  4. Our research team is currently conducting an ethnographic investigation of a Science, Technology, and Society Living Learning Community (STS-LLC). Our investigation focuses on understanding how engineering students’ macro-ethical reasoning develops within the cultural practices of this community. Our approach to this investigation deliberately partners faculty research leads and a group of undergraduate research fellows (RFs) chosen based on their “insider” status within the STS-LLC cohort being investigated. This collaboration required building substantial infrastructure and routines for disrupting the usual hierarchies that exist between researchers and “participants.” This paper will share multiple perspectives, from both RFs and research leads, on the mutually beneficial relationships that emerged within this research collaboration. We will draw on research team meeting notes, research team meeting recordings, and formative feedback survey responses to support our claims. Research leads will share their perspectives on recruiting, onboarding and working with the RFs and describe some of the macro-ethical considerations that motivated their partnership with RFs. RFs will also describe the multiplicity of ways they have participated in and benefited from this research collaboration. This paper will share sociotechnical innovations that supported the development of effective co-learning and co-working processes. These innovations will be described both in terms of the activities, routines, and artifacts that structured our work and the purposes these activities served. Some innovations were constructed by the research leads in order to: (a) support collaboration and mutual engagement, (b) support engineering students in developing competence with ethnographic methods, (c) expand awareness of the engineering education research literature, (d) empower students to refine their own thinking about macroethics and the purpose of education, (e) recognize particular “knowledge-building” games within research activities, and (f) create space for students’ values and political agendas to shape the direction of the research. We will share some example innovations that were iteratively refined in dialogue with RFs and other example innovations that were developed through the process of coworking with RFs, such as GroupMe communication channels, multi-vocal field noting, and prompts for scaffolding reflections on classroom events. We will describe how the deliberate social and technical organization of this collaboration enabled particular forms of mutually beneficial relationships. 
    more » « less
  5. The ongoing lack of diversity in STEM fields has been described as both: a) a critical issue with a detrimental impact on the United States’ ability to compete with global innovation (Chen, 2013) and b) a systemic issue that excludes certain groups of people from opportunities for economic mobility and job security (Wait & McDonald, 2019). Historically excluded groups, such as women, Black/African Americans, Latin Americans, and economically disadvantaged individuals, continue to be in the minority in STEM (Carnevale et al., 2021). Through the years of research on historically excluded groups, researchers have asserted the importance of developing an engineering identity in determining later success in engineering (Allen & Eisenhart, 2017; Kang et al., 2019; Stipanovic & Woo, 2017). With only 8% of all engineering students entering higher education from low income backgrounds (NCES, 2016; Major et. al, 2018), these students often face significant barriers to their success (Chen, 2013; Hoxby & Avery, 2012), yet there has been very little attention given to them in the research historically. Our study seeks to address the gap related to this population and support the developing understanding of how high achieving, low income students form an engineering identity, as well as the intersectionality and salience of their other socio-cultural identities. Using the theoretical framework of figured worlds (Holland et al., 1998; Waide-James & Schwartz, 2019), we sought to explore what factors shaped the formation of an engineering identity for high achieving, low income college students participating in an engineering scholarship program. Specifically, our research questions were: 1) What factors shape the formation of engineering identity for high achieving, low income students participating in an engineering scholarship program? and 2) How salient are other social identities in the formation of their engineering identity? A constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014) design guided our selection of individual interviews and focus groups as data collection tools, allowing us to tailor our interview questions and shape our programming around the needs of participants. NSF SSTEM-sponsored program activities that could shape the figured world of participants included intentional mentoring, cohort-based seminars, targeted coursework in design courses, and connecting students to internships and co-ops. Emerging themes for our preliminary data analysis reveal the importance of peer relationships, professional mentorship, and cultural wealth, including social capital. Preliminary results from this study have the potential to increase understanding of how to best support the success of high achieving, low income college students in engineering programs, including the implementation of targeted interventions and supports, as well as shed further light on the skills they use to overcome systemic barriers. 
    more » « less