A force for good in engineering

Tufts’ Justice-based Engineering and Data Science Initiative focuses on making meaningful changes to the engineering curriculum that better reflect real-world conditions.
A group of student in the ES-2 course having a discussion.

Engineers design much of our everyday lives, from cars and computer chips to medical devices and more. These designs and solutions are deeply informed by engineers’ educational and lived experiences. With that in mind, faculty members from across Tufts University are immersed in the study of how we teach and learn STEM subjects, including engineering. With active research ongoing in Tufts School of Engineering academic departments, the Tufts Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), and Tufts Department of Education, to name just a few hubs, Tufts is a national leader in the study of educational instruction and learning, from kindergarten through college and beyond.

Many Tufts researchers in the area of STEM education focus on the critical work of ensuring that the next generation of engineers receive an education that embodies the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ). They hope to foster inclusive education and learning environments and empower those who have been historically marginalized and excluded from engineering – including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, women, disabled people, LGBTQ people, first-generation college students, undocumented people, and people from low-income backgrounds – to use their voices and experiences to inform their engineering work.

By Kiely Quinn

Pervasive conceptions of engineering can position the field as objective and removed from social, political, or economic circumstances. The structure of many engineering programs reinforces this idea with separate technical and ethics courses, which fundamentally divide the technical components of engineering from the impact of engineering decisions on society. This misguided perception of engineering exacerbates longstanding inequities in the field. “There is a culture in engineering where the more decontextualized the discipline is, the more rigorous it is [considered to be], which gives it power,” says Desen Ozkan, E13, a postdoctoral scholar at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (Tufts CEEO) and Tufts Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI). Instead of this rigid perspective, engineering education researchers like Ozkan encourage a sociotechnical view which acknowledges the intertwined relationship between technological and social factors in engineering.

A sociotechnical approach to engineering

Since 2020, a team of researchers at Tufts has been working to meaningfully implement sociotechnical considerations and principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) into engineering courses. The Justice-based Engineering and Data Science Initiative (JEDI) originated as a Tufts Springboard grant with team lead Ethan Danahy, a research associate professor at Tufts CEEO, and team members Ellise LaMotte, Tufts’ associate dean of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, Jennifer Cross, a research assistant professor at Tufts CEEO, and postdocs Desen Ozkan and Chelsea Andrews, who is currently a research assistant professor at Tufts CEEO. In 2021, JEDI expanded after receiving three years of National Science Foundation funding. Joined by co-PI Assistant Professor Deborah Sunter of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the NSF grant takes a proactive approach to integrating sociotechnical concepts in engineering education.

The team redesigned the curriculum of a purely technical course – Introduction to Computing for Engineering (also known by its course number ES-2) – to increase focus on the social impact of engineering decisions. The new curriculum includes more real-world examples, sociotechnical readings, and regular reflections and discussions to supplement technical work, encouraging students to consider the interplay between engineering challenges and social, cultural, and political factors. For example, rather than computing baseball scores, students work with statistics on who is affected by climate change and discuss the racial disparity of climate change impact in their findings.

Many students encounter ES-2 during their first year studying engineering, since it satisfies the computing requirement for several majors within the School of Engineering. Danahy attests to seeing a shift in recent years since the curricular changes were incorporated. “While students might take alternative courses or already have programming knowledge making them exempt, they are still opting to enroll due to its reputation as a valuable course and these new additions," he says. The team intentionally chose a course with a high population of first-year students, in hopes of building a foundation to introduce sociotechnical ideas from the start of a student’s engineering education, rather than waiting until the ethics course that many engineering students take during their senior year to discuss these critical topics.

Educational opportunities and research

To assist with this curricular shift, a group of 10-16 undergraduate students have been employed each year as equity learning assistants (ELAs). During ES-2 course sessions, ELAs facilitate discussions and ensure that student interactions are as balanced and equitable as possible. “Learning assistants are critical to making sure that the project is working and making sure that students aren’t feeling singled out or tokenized,” says Ozkan. The ELA’s participate in a weekly seminar to brainstorm pedagogical strategies for the ES-2 course and participate in deeper discussions about each topic. The grant also funds summer positions for learning assistants to gain research experience. "I have seen ELA's take on a mentorship role towards the first-year students in ES-2 and show them how to have college-level discussions with their peers," says Danahy. 

With a dual focus on education and research, the initiative takes an iterative approach. In addition to adapting the curriculum, the team also analyzes the effectiveness of its work through student interviews, class recordings, and surveys. “The research informs new changes each time we teach the course. Every spring we update the course based on what we’re learning on the research side of things,” Andrews reflects.

Based on this research, JEDI team members Ozkan and Andrews co-authored a recent paper titled, “Perspectives of Seven Minoritized Students in a First-Year Course Redesign toward Sociotechnical Engineering Education.” Focused on the lived experiences of engineering students from groups that are traditionally marginalized in engineering, the paper was presented at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference and won the best diversity paper award for the Liberal Education/Engineering & Society section.

Collaboration within and beyond JEDI

Other research at Tufts has been complementary to JEDI, including Associate Professor Kristen Wendell’s (Department of Mechanical Engineering) research on learning assistants and McDonnell Family Assistant Professor Greses Pérez’s (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) work with multilingual students. The network of the Center for STEM Diversity and the Tufts CEEO have also been invaluable resources to the initiative, as well as support from Dean of Undergraduate Education Chris Swan.

Faculty members who teach ES-2, including Danahy, Assistant Professor Trevion Henderson (Department of Mechanical Engineering), Assistant Professor Brian Timko (Department of Biomedical Engineering), PhD candidate Emily Carlson (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering), Research Assistant Professor Jennifer Cross (CEEO), and Assistant Teaching Professor Steven Bell (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering), exchange ideas and learn from one another as they implement the new curriculum in their courses. "The collaborative nature of JEDI is really what gives the initiative such a wide-reaching impact. Course instructors come from departments across the School of Engineering and pull ideas and perspectives from their respective disciplines," says Danahy.

The future of JEDI

Now in its second year of NSF funding, JEDI continues to make impactful changes to engineering curricula and to the lives of students involved in the initiative. “We want to grow the project, but as we’re growing the project, we want to really attend to those individual stories,” says Ozkan. While JEDI implements changes across the ES-2 curriculum, the heart of the project remains dedicated to making an impact on individual students.

In the future, Ozkan and Andrews hope that sociotechnical thinking will be integrated into every portion of engineering education. Andrews believes that such an approach may one day become expected. “I think students will start to demand a sociotechnical approach and will eventually be choosing universities based on the schools that will support them in thinking that way,” she says.

With a little over a year of the JEDI initiative remaining, the team hopes to strengthen the program and source alternative funding for the continuation of the most vital aspects of the program, such as the equity learning assistants. Although the task is far from complete, those involved in the JEDI initiative are slowly shifting the needle towards a more inclusive and realistic paradigm of engineering education.

Learn more about the JEDI initiative.

The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Science Foundation. Research reported in this article was supported by the National Science Foundation, under award number 2110727.