Problem solving has been described as the central activity of engineering.1 Developing engineering solutions requires engineers to understand the problems to be solved. However, in defining problems engineers risk overlooking some of the larger ramifications of their work. A chemical that serves as an excellent defoliant may also poison the land and the water, unintentionally harming humans or other species. New roads and bridges may make travel easier, but the increased traffic flow will pollute the surrounding area. Electric cars may not only help us gain independence from fossil fuels but also require us to overhaul our infrastructure to replace gas stations. Manufacturing electric car batteries may prove more costly to the environment due to mining of metals than continuing to drive gas-powered automobiles. Algorithms designed to help banks make decisions about loans can systematically disadvantage people living in certain zip codes.
Educating and preparing future engineers to grapple with the fact that engineering solutions have larger social ramifications remains a challenge. Of course, we still want engineers to develop engineering solutions, but we must not separate engineering solutions from the global challenges and societal issues that contextualize their potential impacts. Engineering education has been criticized for separating the “important” technical topics from the non-technical “unimportant” topics.2 While students initially value the social component of engineering, they experience cognitive dissonance between this value and the technocentric approach to engineering education, resulting in what Cech (2014) calls a “culture of disengagement” from seeing engineering as supporting public welfare.3
Engineering Ethics, as a field, attempts to solve this problem. Yet, ethics, like engineering, can be too narrowly construed. Safety is necessary but not sufficient. We construe engineering ethics to encompass more than issues of professionalism such as safety or being honest. In our view, engineering ethics must include social considerations to ensure just outcomes; listening to communities becomes a central element of engineering ethics. There are many examples of engineers developing solutions that fail because they don’t meet a community’s need (for example, the PlayPump, which was designed to provide water to villages in Africa.4 Contrast this approach with how engineering ethics is traditionally taught. Engineers typically teach it by focusing on engineering codes of ethics. These codes are important guides but not decision procedures to guarantee ethical – or just – outcomes. Philosophers teach engineering ethics by focusing on ethical theories. Teaching engineers ethical theories might make them slightly better philosophers, but there’s no good evidence it makes them more ethical engineers.
To broaden our focus beyond the narrowly technical and ethical, we are engaged in an experiment to reimagine engineering ethics education with a focus on social justice. We designed our engineering ethics classes around the idea of social justice to test whether doing so may allow us 1) to shift our focus from professionalism alone to include social and cultural impacts, and 2) to integrate discussions of ethics and social justice in novel ways through the engineering context.
The class revolves around a field experience. We first have students learn about engineering ethics-related issues facing residents of their surrounding areas (in our cases, Newark, NJ and Gainesville, FL). Students learn about the topic and are simultaneously exposed to a modified version of Learning to Listen (https://onlineethics.org/cases/nae-exemplars-engineering-ethics-education/learning-listen-tool-morally-engaged-engineering) to prepare for their field experience.5 Learning to Listen is vital not only to successfully completing the field assignment but also to achieving the overall goals of the class. The assignment is not to conduct an interview with a set script. It is meant to be a conversation, but one in which the community member does most of the talking. The assignment requires no interview protocol. The point, students are told, is to get the community member talking and for them to listen.
Students are instructed not to record the conversations. They are also not permitted to take notes during the course of the conversation. Their task is to listen deeply and well enough that they can later recount details of the conversation, including how the experience fits into the overall context of the class.
As part of Learning to Listen, students write about their own experiences feeling deeply listened to (and not), as well as times when they listened deeply (and did not) to another. They then share these experiences with another student in the class. Often, students recollect intensely personal experiences with family, friends, and loved ones. Sharing these experiences with fellow students requires them to take emotional risks that go beyond those normally experienced in a classroom context. More than one of our students has described this in-class exercise as “life-changing.”
Importantly, there are no problems for the students to solve during the exercise. The point is simply to re-experience the feelings of listening (and not) and being listened to (and not). When they discuss their experiences with another student, they know that the other student has shared a similar experience. Having focused so intently on the skills required to listen deeply, students practice those skills with each other during these conversations. The field assignment asks students to apply the skills they practiced during Learning to Listen to the context of an engineering ethics-related topical conversation with a stranger.
Once prepped, students go into the city or campus in small groups (~3-4 students) and engage in listening to community members (residents and other students) about the topic they’ve researched. Students ‘recruit’ participants by approaching strangers and asking whether they would be willing to help them complete a class assignment. If there is agreement, students begin asking whether the resident is familiar with or has an opinion regarding their issue (e.g., “How do you feel about all the new luxury apartment buildings going up around town?” or “Do you know that Newark has an unusually high rate of childhood asthma?”). We ask students to listen for twenty minutes. If completing that time requires them to approach more than one person, we ask them to do so. Once the students have completed the field assignment, they return to class and report their experiences.
Students report with whom they spoke, how they engaged them, on what topic, and what that person said. Students are also asked whether the assignment, and their experience, was valuable in the context of the course. Students often recount their surprise at learning they had misconstrued the problem. They express their shock at their initial inability to communicate because they were using technical terms, e.g., gentrification, that the person with whom they were talking didn’t understand. They routinely report learning that these people had valuable insights the students themselves had overlooked. All students think the experience was vital to the course.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
An important lesson learned is how adaptable this assignment is for different contexts. New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is an urban campus with many non-traditional students. The University of Florida (UF) is set in a more traditional college town, and most of the students would be considered traditional. These differences have resulted in us designing the assignment for our respective classes slightly differently.
Although most students at NJIT are New Jersey natives, relatively few come from the city of Newark. Some commute to campus for classes, and those students who live on campus rarely venture off campus. An initial challenge was getting them over the fear of doing so. Allowing students to form groups of five or more helped assuage their fears but made it more difficult for them to engage residents. Wearing NJIT-themed clothing, going out on nice-weather days, and targeting locations with heavy foot traffic allowed for easier engagement. Realizing that students might fail to engage a resident immediately meant building in a couple of weeks during which students could organize themselves to go out into the field. Checking in daily and encouraging them to try again or to try a new place, has so far prevented failures to engage.
Given UF’s setting, students were allowed to engage other students on campus for the assignment, and most groups chose to do so. This resulted in less fear in doing the assignment, although they still reported occasions where someone they approached did not want to speak with them. UF students tended to ask about topics that were common issues for students on campus and were surprised at times as to the direction these conversations took.
Sometimes, community members changed the topic altogether. One group of students who commuted to campus in Newark wanted to ask community members about traffic issues. When they engaged a woman about traffic, she said that the real transportation problem was the sidewalks. Another group of students engaged a Newark resident on the topic of gentrification. The resident had nothing to say until the students pointed to the rash of new luxury apartment buildings under construction around where they were standing. At that point, the resident teared up and told a tale of having been displaced from their home to make room for a new building. UF students asked a fellow student about the adequacy of transportation to campus, which led the student to talk about social injustice resulting from differential access to public transportation.
Not requiring anything more than engaging and listening allows students not to panic if a resident changes the topic. Their task is not to find a definitive answer or engineering solution but to listen and to bring what they hear to bear on their own formulation of the problem. Telling the current class about the experiences of previous classes also helps students relax into the assignment.
From Engineering Ethics to STEM
Although we describe our approach with reference to an experimental engineering ethics course, we think that it could be adapted to other STEM contexts relatively easily. Since one of the key aspects of our experiment is to design the field experience as a high impact but low stakes assignment, it encourages students to take risks and engage with the material in ways that go beyond normal classroom participation. Rather than merely reading about listening as a mechanism for inculcating social justice into engineering ethics-related topics, students actually listen to others and experience listening deeply for themselves.
One of the best aspects of this experiment is that it could so easily be adapted to other contexts and therefore adopted by other STEM educators. We described one aspect of how the assignment was changed based on our campus settings. Another example is how the students report out. At NJIT the class is small enough (~30 students in groups of 3-4, with 15-20 minutes for each group) that students present their experiences during class time. At UF, the class is too large (approximately 55 students in 14 groups) for all groups to report during class. Instead, each group makes a short video (for an example of a student video, go to https://youtu.be/dwcOC9CcOnU).
We have found this experience to be both easy to implement and to have a significant impact on students, even when it is only a small portion of their course grade. It could be adapted to many different contexts and course contents. STEM educators often look for ways to bring the real world into the classroom. With our approach they can go one step further and bring the classroom into the real world.
The authors acknowledge the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their support of this work. They would also like to express their gratitude for their students and their advisory board members: Wenda Bauschpies, Yanna Lambrinidou, Yvonne Lewis, and Michael Loui.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos 1933657 and 1933652. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.