Reimagining energy: A sociotechnical approach to an undergraduate engineering course

Joel Mejia
Associate Professor
The University of Texas at San Antonio

Energy is a foundational concept across engineering disciplines, but it is often introduced to students in notoriously disengaging Thermodynamics courses. Many of these courses have roots in the Industrial Revolution and are characterized by particularly ethnocentric discourses that fail to acknowledge non-Western ways of being, knowing and doing. In an effort to provide students with a different perspective on energy – one that is not typical for engineering classrooms – we sought to develop and deliver a course that integrated culturally responsive approaches. The course, “An Integrated Approach to Energy,” focused on a sociotechnical approach to the teaching and learning of energy concepts such as solar, nuclear, and fossil fuels, while integrating economic, political, environmental, and social implications of these energy technologies. The intent of both the course and the engineering program was to explicitly recognize engineering as a sociotechnical discipline, thus creating a different vision for engineering by shifting from the “traditional” view of the discipline as primarily technical to a vision where engineering is interdisciplinary and highlighting the “social” aspects.One of the components of the research was to explore how this approach to the course would contribute to the students’ understanding of sociotechnical concepts related to energy and engineering, and their perceptions of culturally relevant practices. We were guided by the questions: (1) how and in what ways do culturally relevant practices influence engineering students’ learning of sociotechnical engineering concepts? and (2) what are the students’ attitudes toward culturally relevant practices? The course was offered to sophomores during the 2020 and 2021 Spring semesters at a primarily White, private, religious-affiliated institution. A total of 25 students took the course, and we collected data from students’ artifacts, interviews, and observational data. During the observations, we focused on how the students behaved, interacted and responded to the curriculum, as well as the ways in which they responded to the inclusion of sociotechnical issues in the course content. It is important to note that the course was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and aspects of the research were modified according to this impact. A few observations happened in person (before emergency remote teaching initiated) and a few observations happened remotely through Zoom. Results from this research indicate that students continued to learn the technical content (a common objection to implementing culturally responsive practices in engineering is that the engineering content would be “watered down”) and began to make the sociotechnical connection we found to be missing in many engineering courses. Students were excited and engaged with the course, as evidenced by course evaluations, attendance, and assignment completion. Students were most engaged by course content that tied directly to and showcased the role of people – either the impacts engineers had, or the people that were impacted by engineering. In examining our students’ response to emergency remote teaching during COVID-19, we also found that our culturally responsive approach informed compassionate and flexible pedagogy, which was important for supporting students in this difficult period.


Gordon Hoople, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA; Diana Chen, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA; Susan Lord, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA