Does the way that educators talk about engineering influence who chooses to enter the field? A University of Michigan research team is asking that question in a $1.5 million project funded by the National Science Foundation.
It aims to examine how engineering is taught, and how a greater focus on human and social aspects in engineering education could support more diverse engagement in the field and ultimately lead to better engineering solutions.
Shanna Daly, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at U-M and the principal investigator on the project explains that the engineering field’s traditionally tight focus on math and technical information may discourage engineers from considering how the solutions they design will affect people, or how they might harm the planet, for example.
“Engineers have a lot of power, but that power can cause damage if it’s not used carefully,” Daly said. “We see that in a lot of ways, like planes that crash because engineers didn’t think enough about the training of pilots and social media platforms that work well for their creators but harm many of their users.”
Daly says this isn’t the fault of individual engineers, but of a system that teaches engineers that they can solve problems without recognizing the cultures and contexts in which those solutions will be used. She says this narrow representation of engineering also tends to shut out women, minorities and marginalized populations who want to solve big problems but don’t see themselves fitting into a field focused solely on technical information and math.
The team plans to work toward changing that system by examining how engineering is taught, and how those teachings influence undergraduate students’ ideas of what engineering is and the kinds of problems they can solve as engineers. They’ll do that over the next three years with an extensive series of undergraduate student and instructor interviews, classroom observations and surveys. The study will compare how engineering is taught in U-M’s industrial and operations engineering and mechanical engineering departments.
Joi-Lynn Mondisa, a U-M assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering and a co-principal investigator on the project, says the focus on two distinct departments will provide useful contrast by showing how different teaching techniques can lead to different ideas about engineering.
“I think mechanical engineering students have a very strong identity and very specific ideas about where they fit, but with industrial operations and engineering students, it’s a little more open-ended,” she said. “So I think it will be very useful to explore why that is—examining how students receive messages in both fields, and how that affects the way they identify as an engineer.”
Ultimately, the team plans to develop specific techniques for how to work a more broad, inclusive view of engineering into existing curricula at U-M and elsewhere. Erika Mosyjowski, a U-M research fellow in mechanical engineering and a researcher on the project, says it’s a matter of integrating a broader set of skills into the core of engineering teaching, rather than treating them as add-on subjects that are relegated to the margins of the field.
“We have a lot of students who are asking questions like ‘why is it not until my capstone project that we mention ethics,’” said Mosyjowski. “And I don’t think the answer is for instructors to throw out everything they’re doing—there are minor tweaks, minor integration that can facilitate that messaging across the entire student experience.”The research team also includes co-principal investigator Lisa Lattuca, a professor in the U-M School of Education. The study kicked off in October of 2021 and is scheduled to run through September of 2024.