S4-S&SI2-1 - Design for the future: Analyzing the broader implications of electronic technologies in an introductory electrical engineering class

1. Innovative Practice Full Paper
Samantha Breslin1 , Bre Przestrzelski2, Susan Lord3
1 University of Copenhagen
3 University of San Diego

Full paper: Technically-focused courses in engineering often neglect to consider the non-technical implications - social and environmental, for example - of technology designs. As part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation, our program is working to find ways to incorporate values and practices relating to social justice, sustainability, humanitarian practice, and peace into undergraduate engineering education. The goal is to integrate technical and social content that cultivates sociotechnical awareness and practice among engineering students. In this paper, we show how considerations of social, environmental, and economic context were integrated into a required introductory course on electrical engineering for Integrated Engineers. We describe the content, implementation, and results of a “Design for the Future” module conducted in Spring 2019. This module and paper builds on work in engineering education that developed similar modules, relating to conflict minerals, material life cycle and social responsibility, and social context and ethics in robotics. The worksheets developed for this module provide a framework for students to analyze and evaluate technologies, and for faculty to integrate non-technical context into their courses as well as evaluate students’ engagement with this sociotechnical analysis. 

The “Design for the Future'' module is framed around a course-long student project where students choose a technology of interest (TOI) to them that relates to electrical engineering, (e.g. Tesla batteries, solar cells, and tidal-powered turbines). First, in homework assignments, students provided initial proposals on particular TOIs and then initial summaries identifying two social implications in relation to their TOI. In a subsequent class, students were also introduced to and discussed the impacts of different materials, including lithium mining and hazardous waste relating to solar panels, interrogating how to define sustainable technologies and how these can be improved. These topics also highlighted different life-cycle stages that are significant when evaluating the impacts of technologies fundamentally tied to electrical components. Following these topical introductions, students wrote a memo where they were presented with a quantitative problem around cadmium leaching in a solar farm and asked to reflect on assumptions and knowledge gaps that they needed to consider in the design of the solar farm. Mid-semester, students then participated in an in-class exercise designed to help them consider the design implications of who benefits, who pays, and who is excluded across the product life-cycle in relation to their TOI. Finally, students presented and submitted a report on their TOI, examining the implications for design - building on previous exercises - as well as reflecting on technical considerations, the potential innovation of the technology, and its significance to them. 

Student feedback in surveys and a focus group showed that the module enabled students to think more deeply about the broader implications of technologies and their electrical components. We provide a reflection on the successes and areas for improvement of this module, along with providing module materials, with the hope that they might help others incorporate them into their courses towards developing the capacity among engineering students to address broad considerations that support values such as sustainability and social justice.