Fighting the social-technical divide in undergraduate engineering

Community members construct Lego structures at the table for the Center for Engineering Education Outreach on community day on Sept. 24, 2017. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily Archives

What does it mean to be an engineer? Honestly, what does an engineer really do? After the countless hours spent in late-night labs throwing together calculus problem sets or that one semester when they gave their lives to the computer science department, what are they qualified for? The answer is, many things — but not everything. 

According to Chelsea Andrews, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, a new initiative is coming to the School of Engineering. The program, “Piloting a Learning Assistant model for a Justice-based Engineering and Data science Initiative in ES-2,” received funding at the beginning of this year. Starting this semester, Introduction to Computing for Engineers (ES 2), a course that fulfills the computing degree requirement for engineers, is undergoing a renovation. Alongside the original computer coding-based content, there will be new content on social justice issues. Instead of only professors leading the course, equity learning assistants are coming into the classrooms and facilitating conversations around these topics, according to Andrews. 

All equity learning assistants have taken first-year engineering requirements. In addition, they participate in a seminar with Andrews and Desen Ozkan, another postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, in preparation of facilitating conversations around justice topics in the ES 2 classrooms, according to Ozkan. 

“The whole project has two components. Developing these justice-based engineering and data science modules for ES 2, and then facilitating in-class discussions on engineering justice topics,” Andrews said. “The equity learning assistants, or we call them ELAs, they help with both parts, but mostly they’re involved in facilitating the discussions in class.” 

According to Andrews, in the ES 2 course, students read articles about engineering justice topics, and then the ELAs facilitate small-group and class discussions.

“The first activity was about various stakeholders that had to do with a technology that was going to make a shopping cart or shopping queue more streamlined,” Ozkan said. “With the learning assistants, the ES 2 students started thinking about who’s going to be impacted by this new technology … who has power in making decisions like this in kind of propelling productivity and efficiency … and if it’s the engineer’s responsibility to take that into consideration.”  

In another activity, they discussed the process of engineering for individuals with physical disabilities.

“We talked about who gets to be at the table of design, or at the computer when they’re creating code or making decisions about other people,” Ozkan said. “It’s important to think about power dynamics there.” 

Nashielli Diaz, an ELA and junior studying biomedical engineering, explained the need for conversations like these in the engineering field. 

“A lot of what goes into engineering is designing for other populations or trying to help other groups of people that oftentimes aren’t considered,” Diaz said. “Because the field isn’t as diverse to begin with, you end up designing for people who just look like you or who you are taught to design for, which is usually [cisgender], white [heterosexual] men.” 

Alongside discussions, the ELAs are planning on creating assignment modules for ES 2 students that use sociology data, according to Katie Castor, an ELA and sophomore studying mechanical engineering. 

“We have a database of MBTA data and it’s a ton of information [on] income, gender demographics [and] like everything on all the different lines and buses,” Castor said. “We’re working on setting up a problem for students to combine the data from that source in coding.” 

Knowing the demographics you are designing for is an important skill in engineering, Diaz explained. 

“There’s such a big disconnect between a designer and the people that you’re designing for, or you’re trying to help,” Diaz said.

Within engineering there is a stigma around justice-based learning, in that to be a “real” engineer, your education has to be centered around technical skills. Andrews explained why this is not the truth.

“Even when you’re doing thermo, even when you’re doing dynamics, [social justice] matters … [You can’t think] ‘Oh, those courses are the social ones and these courses are the technical ones,’” Andrews said. “The social-technical divide is a really big problem in undergraduate engineering.” 

Jalen Little, an ELA and sophomore studying human factors engineering, echoed this view, which was cemented in his experience in the engineering department. 

“Too often we take a very supplementary view of equity and social justice in terms of engineering. It’s something that we learn maybe in one unit or we take one ethics class on it,” Little said. “In reality, [social justice] is really something that’s intertwined and ingrained in every step of learning that we do when it comes to engineering.” 

In addition to creating better problem-solvers, the ELA program makes engineering a more inclusive space. Little reflected on how he would have felt if he had this opportunity in his first-year experience. 

“For me personally, it would’ve made me feel more welcome in my classes. I think it would’ve made the data feel a little closer to things that I am personally passionate about,” Little said. “It would have made me feel better knowing that people are trying their best to include these things and create an environment that is actively fighting to create change at Tufts.” 

This program doesn’t only affect first-year students, but also teaches ELAs. 

“It’s a very reflective process, which I like a lot better because it’s not just that you have a class and you go in and you discuss readings at a very surface level. I think we kind of get really deep into some of these readings,” Diaz said. “I feel like it better prepares me for going into the classroom and knowing what kinds of questions to ask students … The thing that surprised me the most is how much I’m still learning.”

Over time, the justice-based engineering and data science initiative hopes to incorporate social learning into all parts of engineering at Tufts, and not just in the ES 2 classroom. 

“[One] big long-term goal is that this would be really integrated throughout the curriculum through all four years,” Andrews said. “So no course is being considered to be too technical to include the social aspects.”

Andrews hopes that the integration of justice topics into engineering courses will serve undergraduate students well after graduation, and help them in their careers. She explained how she envisions Tufts alumni using their social-technical engineering education.

“[Tufts graduates] will hopefully push their teams to consider [the social aspects] a little bit more,” Andrews said. “To be thinking about that in the job search. Like, ‘I don’t want to work for a company that is ignoring all of these issues, because I know it’s really important.’” 

Castor summarized what she had taken out of the articles she’d read and the semester so far as an ELA.

“It really stuck with me … It’s that we think of engineering as being purely numbers, like math and science, but it’s never existed outside in its own realm without all of the social issues and things like that, because the decisions that we make do affect people and it’s easy to forget that everything that engineers do has an impact, and it is exclusionary to some extent,” Castor said. 

The justice-based engineering and data science initiative would like to acknowledge Tufts SpringBoard for funding this program, as well as the additional leadership of Dr. Ethan Danahy, Dr. Jennifer Cross and Dr. Ellise LaMotte.


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