Michigan Engineering News

A graphic image of people working and solving a problem together

5 challenging ideas for creating socially responsible engineers

Key takeaways and questions from a panel on the role universities and public policy can play in moving the field of engineering forward.

What is the role of universities and public policy in cultivating socially responsible engineers?

A recent panel discussion highlighted some of the tremendous opportunities and complex challenges for making progress in this area. 

“When I think about serving the common good, I think about serving people. Not just some people, but all people,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan and moderator for the event. “So this notion of equity-centered engineering is about how we do a better job serving all people.”

The event, which was hosted at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy by the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program on March 21, was recorded and provides the full context of the discussion. But to give you an idea of the scope of the issues, here are a few key quotes from the panel to highlight some of the main themes.

Idea 1: What if every aspect of our curriculum is not as important as we think?

“I can tell you one challenge that stands in the way (of developing socially responsible engineers) is that in the natural sciences and in engineering we have a model of student understanding that you could compare to a brick wall. There’s a kind of sense in faculty members’ minds that when you take first semester physics, you put that first brick in place, and it’s fully in place, right? And then you put the second brick in place, and the third brick in place. 

“And so we have this sense that the only way you can learn sciences is through this complete list of absolutely everything, and if you take anything away from it, you won’t know anything. This is clearly not true, and educators understand that nobody gets the same first brick even, much less the rest of them.

“So we need to be thinking about the flexibility that actually exists in our curriculum, to encourage, allow—even require—our students to engage with aspects of engineering which are unfamiliar. Like its history, and its social impact. And those need to be central parts of an engineer’s education.

“Disciplines like engineering define who they are by what they do. And when our students look at our engineering faculty and don’t see them think about or engage with these kinds of things, they recognize that.”

-Tim McKay (Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education (LSA) and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, and Education, University of Michigan)

Idea 2: Engineering education needs to take time to help students understand themselves as more than just engineers

“I think one of the most fundamental changes that needs to happen, which has already been kind of mentioned, is that students need to stop perceiving technical content as purely technical, but instead learn to perceive it as inescapably entangled with social and political factors.

“Another thing that I think needs to happen sort of from the beginning is that there needs to be room for students to form different identities relative to technology. So oftentimes the sort of identity that attracts people to computing or engineering is this problem-solving, hacking, creative. It’s (a) curiosity-driven, sort of technical identity. And that’s great. There needs to be room for that. 

“But there also needs to be room for other sorts of identities. There needs to be room for students to form a political identity relative to technology. Or a personal identity. Or to be able to relate what they are learning in the classroom to things that are happening in their community. 

-Johanna Okerlund (Postdoctoral Fellow, Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan)

Idea 3: Maybe more students would be capable of studying engineering if we changed our attitude and approach.

“At the core of a lot of these challenges is scaling engineering education, (and) computer science education. (There is) a belief that we can’t serve everyone. And that’s what creates these toxic cultures, of classrooms where people can’t support each other and learn from each other and teach each other. And so I do wonder sometimes—and there is certainly some research that’s exploring this—if that’s actually true. 

“What if we just completely just reinvented the pedagogy such that the thousand students on campus who want to study a particular engineering or CS discipline can support each other, along with faculty help and graduate student help, to do that—at an arbitrary scale? And I don’t know that we’ve really done the research to explore how to make that work successfully and at the same scale that we do it now, but I don’t know that it’s impossible. I just don’t know if we’ve had the courage yet to try those models.

-Amy Ko (Professor, Information School, University of Washington-Seattle)

Idea 4: Thinking there is always a solution might be a problem

“I wonder sometimes whether expressing an attitude that is really different from the usual attitude of engineers … that everything is a problem that you solve.

“I think that a lot of communities see that statement—you know, ‘We solve problems’—and they watch problems not get solved, but get created, and it really undermines the credibility of the field. And so I think a more critical engineering could be much more effective at bringing everyone into it. Because it’s only the people who actually think everything can be solved as a problem who are drawn to it now. And everyone else worries about that.”

-Tim McKay

“There’s a phrase we use in our undergraduate program that ‘Every solution is a problem.’”

-Amy Ko

Idea 5: Keep pushing

“From the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the National Science foundation has been funding efforts to increase the diversity in engineering and the sciences.

“I’ll use a quote that I have been using for the last few years from watching Cornel West. ‘We need to be prisoners of hope…’

“Great discoveries in technology … they didn’t come about because somebody started and made it the first time … People kept going. So yes, there is hope …. Keep in mind that probably the only place that the shortest path between two points is a straight line is in basic geometry and when you’re crossing the street. But in life there are many curves, hills and valleys.”

-José Zayas-Castro (Division Director, NSF Division of Engineering Education and Centers, National Science Foundation)

Watch the entire panel, courtesy of the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Media Contact

Zach Robertson

Marketing Communications Strategist