Seating Social Scientists at the STEM Table

In what we can now see is a noticeable trend, social scientists have lately taken a new interest in engineering equity, outlining the broad trends and, vitally, recurrent challenges faced by diversity-focused and other socially informed efforts in technical fields. Earlier this year, Karan Watson, an electrical engineer at Texas A&M also widely known for her work in engineering instruction and administration, guest edited an issue of the Journal of Engineering Education that presented incisive social scientific studies of institutional habits.  Carroll Seron and Susan Silbey, meanwhile, are bringing an anthropological and sociological perspective to the study of engineering education reform efforts. They have shown that engineers’ focus on measurable outcomes, in the classroom and when working for clients, gives short shrift to “what cannot be measured.” That leaning may well arise from the pressures of accreditation and employment, but Seron and Silbey help us see that inclusion, social responsibility, and other hard-to-measure projects thus remain marginalized in engineering, even among well-intentioned reformers.

Happily, a new journal, Engineering Studies, in which their essay appears, promises many more contributions to this conversation.  As Watson notes, engineering education is a field with clear interest in self-study and reform, but one that tends to dismiss the meaning of past lessons.  She tells us that,

Education innovation deserves the same discipline, imagination, and effort that we are willing to put into other complex engineered systems.

The new humanistic and social scientific attention to engineering education seems poised to jump-start just such an engagement. Let’s hope that universities, used to maintaining sturdy distinctions among their technical, humanistic, and pedagogical functions, support this collective effort.