Seeing through the lens of social justice: A threshold for engineering
Doctoral thesis, 2010
In recent times the need for educational research dedicated to engineering education has been recognised. This PhD project is a contribution to the development of engineering education scholarship and the growing body of engineering education research. In this project it was recognised that problem solving is a central activity to engineering. However, it was also recognised that the conditions for doing engineering are changing, especially in light of pressing issues of poverty and environmental sustainability that humanity currently faces, and as a consequence, engineering education needs to emphasise problem definition to a greater extent. One mechanism for achieving this, which has been adopted by some engineering educators in recent years, is through courses that explicitly relate engineering to social justice. However, creating this relationship requires critical interdisciplinary thinking that is alien to most engineering students. In this dissertation it is suggested that for engineering students, and more generally, engineers, looking at their practice and profession through a social justice lens might be seen as a threshold that needs to be crossed. By studying the variation present among students in three different courses at three different North American universities, the intention was to understand how students approach and internalise social justice as a perspective on engineering and/or develop their abilities to think critically. A conceptual model to frame the study was developed by combining elements of threshold concept theory and the educational research methodology, phenomenographic variation theory. All three of the courses studied operated on a similar basic pedagogical model, however, the courses were framed differently, with social justice in the foreground or in the background with the focus on, in one case, ethics and in the other, sustainability. All courses studied appeared to be successful in encouraging engineering students to engage in critical thinking and a similar general trend in the development of students’ conceptions of social justice was observed in each of the three courses. However, it does appear that if one is interested in developing an articulated understanding of social justice, with respect to engineering, that an explicit focus on social justice is preferable.