A University of Michigan research team has received a US$1.5million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the way in which engineering is taught, with a specific focus onthe human and social aspects of an engineering education.
‘Engineers have a lot of power, but that power can cause damage if it’s not used carefully,’ said Shanna Daly, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator on the project. ‘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.’
According to Daly, engineering’s traditionally tight focus on mathematics and technical information may discourage engineers from considering how the solutions that they design will affect people, or how they might harm the planet.A greater focus on human and social aspects could support more diverse engagement in the field and ultimately lead to better engineering solutions, she said.
Currently, engineers are typically taught that they can solve problems without needing to explore the cultures and contexts in which their solutions will be used, Daly said. This narrow representation of engineering also tends to shut out women, minorities and marginalised populations who want to solve big problems but don’t see themselves fitting into a field focused solely on technical information and mathematics, she continued.
The research team plans to examine how engineering is taught and how this influences undergraduate students’ ideas of what engineering is and the kinds of problems that they can solve as engineers using undergraduate student and instructor interviews, classroom observations and surveys. The study will compare how engineering is taught in the university’s departments of industrial and operations engineering, and mechanical engineering.
According to Joi-Lynn Mondisa, an assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering and a co-principal investigator on the project, the focus on two distinct departments will provide a 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.’