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Q&A with Diana Chen: JEDI and the Sociotechnical Curriculum

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Owyn Cooper

Communications and Events Specialist

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Diana A. Chen, PhD, is one of the founding faculty members of Integrated Engineering at the University of San Diego. She earned her BS in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College, and MS and PhD in Civil Engineering from Clemson University. In collaboration with colleagues, Dr. Chen is designing a new engineering curriculum to educate changemakers who understand that engineering is an inherently socio-technical activity.  

Chen is visiting from the University of San Diego and has hosted a Lunch & Learn at the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science about the sociotechnical lens on Thursday, October 27th. She will be at the University of Denver until December 15th. Faculty are encouraged to join the workshop that Chen is hosting on incorporating Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) initiatives into the curriculum on Friday, December 2 from 10:00 am-1:00 pm in ECS 510.  


Here’s a Q+A with Chen on how to incorporate JEDI frameworks into courses and why that’s important. (Note: The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.) 

What experiences did you have that led you to wanting to incorporate a sociotechnical lens into your lessons and share that with other faculty? 

I did my undergrad at Harvey Mudd College. They really drill into the students the importance of the college mission, which is to consider impact on society. Mudd is a tough place to be, and as me, my friends, and my colleagues who are also alumni have graduated, I think we share a sentiment that we’re trained very well technically, and we were taught to consider our impact on society but, without any help, it is challenging to see the connection between the two. So when my program’s co-founder (also a Mudd alum) and I were designing our curriculum, we thought, “Can we build a curriculum that helps to help students see that connection while they're still in school, rather than come to a shocking disjointed realization 10 years down the road?” 

I took several courses in college with Dr. Marianne de Laet, who is a professor in Science, Technology, and Society, and that was really eye-opening for me. It completely shifted how I thought about technology. (The Intro to STS course) helped me come to the realization that engineering, science and math are not objective. We're taught to think engineering is neutral and objective in school, but realistically, what type of engineering research is funded and what technology we create are all decisions made by people. 


Can you walk through a basic understanding of reframing curriculum through a sociotechnical lens? 

As engineers, specifically as engineering faculty, we are typically only trained in the technical aspects. Engineering education in the last few decades has been trying to push towards more of a sociotechnical mindset in showing that engineering does have an impact on people. In engineering, decisions are made by people. Engineers ultimately are still people, who each have our own flaws and biases, and that gets built into our technology and our products. 

The idea behind a “sociotechnical” engineering education is to build it into the curriculum to help students see before they graduate and go into the workforce, where they have to figure out on their own how their work impacts people in society. That idea of reframing is an approach that I've taken that really focuses on baby steps. It can be scary to completely upend the engineering curriculum. My approach is, “okay, let's keep what you have. You don't have to throw anything out. What is a small tweak that we can start to make?” It's practice for students and it's practice for faculty.  

As faculty begin to do this work and start to see that students can still learn (for example) centroids within a sociotechnical context, the faculty themselves will start to build the connections between engineering concepts and where students might see these concepts in their lives outside of engineering. 


If faculty aren't sure how to approach reframing what advice do you have for incorporating sociotechnical framing if they're unsure of where to start? 

To do the JEDI work well, one really needs to have looked at themselves first and consider their own positionality, how they are grounded in their own identity, and how that relates to the identities of others? That’s where you start to get to the issues of privilege, oppression, and social justice. Without having taken the time to do that internal work, it's hard to be comfortable doing that externally with students. 

Reframing engineering as sociotechnical is that first baby step of considering how technologies impact people. For instance, those with disabilities like in the sign language gloves example I shared in my talk. Have we considered the input of the people who will actually interact with the technology? Then, we can slowly start to think through who the people are that this is impacting, and how it impacts different groups of people differently. We have to think through the demographic piece of that and what the different intersectional identities are that come into play.  

It is tough to get there, and I encourage everyone to try. But the first step is to shift from just equations and problem solving to problem solving for people.  


Do you have any resources for where they can start if they're not sure where to begin?  

The community in engineering education is quite strong in this, and you can find those communities at conferences. The American Society for Engineering Education has several divisions that focus on this work, the newest one being Equity, Culture and Social Justice (ECSJ)Engineering Research and Methods (ERM) is another division. ASEE has more of a methodological focus. While pedagogical examples can be found in every division at ASEE, ERM publishes research about how engineering education in the classroom, or how engineering education culture, impacts people differently.  

If people want to jump straight into the social justice world instead, there is also the Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference. There's a strong community if you're out there looking for it. 


How can faculty reach out to you if they’re looking to delve deeper into this topic and get advice and insight on reframing curriculum as sociotechnical?   

I'm happy to talk through the sociotechnical lens or ideas that faculty are thinking about implementing in their classrooms. If anybody wants to sit down and pull out their course materials, I'm happy to grapple with the material with them to see where we can start making changes.  

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