The Value of Community Engaged Learning in the Formation of Future Engineers

June 7, 2021

This is the second in a series of posts leading up to a Special Session at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2021 conference on July 27, 2021 entitled At the Crossroads of Community Engagement, Ethics, Liberal Education, and Social Responsibility:  Community engaged engineering education challenges and opportunities in light of COVID-19.  These posts are intended to introduce the panelists and provide a basis for discussion at the conference and beyond. Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Rollins, Bohrer, Brownell/June 2021.

In this post, we explore the value of community engaged learning in the formation of future engineers from a faculty perspective.  

William Oakes, 150th Anniversary Professor, Director of the EPICS Program and Professor of Engineering Education, Purdue University

How do you see the field of community engaged learning participating in the formation of future engineers?

I see this in two dimensions. I think there’s a lot here to discuss. If you go back to the history of community engaged learning, hardly any of the activity was in engineering.  Most of it was in the social sciences and humanities. I think that there was a lot of emphasis that these kinds of activities were going to motivate and equip the future activists in our society. And when you look at engineers, most of our engineering students go to work for the system.  As engineering educators, I think we have to acknowledge that a big part of what we do is equipping and educating these people that are going to go out to work within the system–whether they’re in startup companies or in large companies or in government organizations.  When you’re looking at it in that context, it’s not about educating the future activists; it’s about educating the future leaders that can help move the system.  So part of what we’re doing is figuring out how you work within the system with the balance of ethics.  We ask: How do you use ethical reasoning? Where are your own boundaries and how can you question? This is a little different than, “Let’s turn over the whole apple cart!”  It’s also important to recognize that we can and should motivate some future activists!  So there’s a balance. I think we have a portfolio of diverse spaces in which to be educating people. We are all, regardless of discipline, educating future citizens–getting them to see the world and its complexity, to understand issues of power and privilege and justice. It is not just something to memorize and get the points, but something that becomes part of the students.  We ask, how does that concept integrate into the organizations and the careers that they’re going into after graduation?

I think in engineering we get a lot of students who are thinking, “Yep, I’m going to come in and I’m going to be part of the system.” So as educators we’re looking for experiences that can challenge students’ preconceptions.  We need to think about what tools we can give them to continue to make sense in an evolving world. And so, when I think about it, it’s about how we create paths for students to peel off and say, “You know, I was going to be an engineer, but I would like to start with the Peace Corps and get into policy.” But I think we would be doing a disservice to our profession if we said that’s the main purpose, that we want to derail our students who were going to go on to develop the technologies and be part of those systems. Instead, we can tell them that, when they go and become part of that system, they don’t have to become the system.  We need to equip these students to know where the lines are drawn and to understand that, when they get to a point where they can start to make decisions that have impact, they can be part of the change.  So they’re different levels of change. When you look at different parts of the body or different team members, you need different things. You need people in policy, but you also need people back in the company.

I think back to when I was a faculty fellow for Indiana Campus Compact. I was the only engineer- which happens to me in a lot of service learning groups!  I was thinking in terms of how we might educate hundreds of students in a semester.  I had colleagues in that small cohort that were working with just a small number of people that said, “They’re going to be the activists!” And we got talking in one of these groups. I said, “It’s interesting that you view yourselves as equipping the people who are going to storm the gates to the factory, and I look at myself as educating the future CEO so you don’t have to storm those gates!”  We need both! 

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