S4-S&SI2-2 - Investigating using a “Social Impact Audit” Tool to support students’ decision-making in a Materials Science Course

1. Innovative Practice Full Paper
Laura Gelles , Susan Lord

Engineers are called upon to balance and adapt to the competing demands of industry, the environment, and society to develop sustainable and equitable solutions to modern problems. While traditional engineering programs provide students with the technical skills required of their profession, students often lack the knowledge and resources on how to incorporate complex environmental and social factors into decision-making. Consideration of social context is particularly challenging. One approach to providing a framework for decision-making that explicitly includes social considerations is the Social Impact Audit (SIA) tool currently in development by researchers at ANSYS Granta. As part of a larger initiative to integrate traditional technical skills with enhanced social awareness into the engineering curriculum, a new module supporting students’ ability to include social considerations was developed using the SIA tool for  a third-year Materials Science course at a private university in the USA.

This innovative practice paper will describe the design, implementation, lessons learned, and student feedback from the creation of a new module “The Final Straw”, which used the example of single-use plastic straws and material alternatives to make informed decisions that consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts. The module began by introducing students to the material properties of single-use plastic straws, which have resulted in their ubiquitous and environmentally deleterious use.  Then students were introduced to the SIA tool, a macro-enabled Excel workbook that uses data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) to evaluate and compare the social impact of a product’s lifecycle. The purpose of the tool is to estimate the impact of a product’s life cycle on the well-being of the people within the countries involved. Based upon the social impacts revealed through SIA, students were required to make and justify recommendations on changing the material a straw was made from and/or the nations where the material originated, was manufactured, or disposed in. In doing so, students considered the larger economic, environmental, and social impacts of their material recommendation.

Student learning was assessed using homework and exam problems. Student feedback was obtained through surveys. Preliminary results indicate that students found the SIA tool easy to use, but would have liked a more sophisticated analysis of the intersection of social and economic considerations. Additionally, despite being required to focus on social impacts, students often attributed more importance to economic and environmental considerations when making material selection decisions.