Evaluating the Valuation of Public Welfare Beliefs and Social Consciousness amongst UVA Engineering Undergraduates; Using the Actor-Network Theory Framework to Analyze Ethics Education in UVA’s SEAS Engineering Curriculum

Thielsch, Kyle, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Elliott, Travis, EN, University of Virginia

The University of Virginia’s (UVA) mission is to “make the world a better place by creating and disseminating knowledge and by preparing engineering leaders to solve global challenges” (University of Virginia, n.d.). In order to prepare their students to be leaders of tomorrow, the school must ensure that it is providing the best education possible in all areas of the profession, from robust math and science abilities to strong understandings of how the technologies we create will impact all types of communities. In recent years, heightened scrutiny has been placed on undergraduate programs and administrators to ensure that their curricula embrace diverse viewpoints and prepare their neophytes to think critically on how they will impact marginalized communities in the future. A 2013 study by University of Michigan sociologist Erin Cech indicated that the social consciousness and public welfare considerations of undergraduate engineering students actually worsened over their university experience (Cech, 2013). I wanted to explore if this was also the case at UVA and used Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to analyze how a curriculum change could be implemented.

My science, technology, and society (STS) research project used ANT to explore the actors who would influence and be influenced by a decision to modify the core undergraduate engineering curriculum at UVA. Exploring many of the principle actors—both physical and ideological—gave an interesting insight into how a decision like that is made and what information would be necessary to evaluate its necessity. I also tied in the historical significance of UVA. One of the oldest schools in the United States, UVA was built and maintained for much of its history by enslaved laborers. How does that affect its responsibility to developing socially consious engineers? Does it matter at all? Moreover, UVA is also one of the few institutions in the country with a science, technology, and society program explicitly dedicated to understanding how technology impacts and is impacted by the world around us, so perhaps we are exempt from Cech’s findings. Regardless, I wanted to explore how a change might take place, if one day deemed necessary.

My technical project sought to survey the undergraduate engineering population to determine how factors of social consciousness and public welfare beliefs were valued by students. I collected and analyzed data regarding STS 1500, students’ opinions on what values were important in an engineering career, and a new, mandatory first year tour about the history of enslaved African American laborers and how that impacted their understanding of UVA and the engineering profession. Parts of the survey were modeled after Cech’s study and attempted to determine whether her findings of a decline in public welfare consideration was prevalent at UVA as well. My study ultimately found no reason to conclude that UVA followed the pattern of the schools in her study, though the project was limited in scope and resources. However, I was able to gain valuable insights into how different factors were valued by different demographic populations.

While there is no evidence that the engineering school needs an overhaul of its core engineering curriculum at this time, other studies with a larger reach might be able to find some. The resources required to implement a new curriculum are not trivial, so the evidence would have to be robust, and a clear path forward would need to be established. The specifics of that path forward are beyond the scope of this study and could be an enlightening step forward for future researchers.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
social consciousness, engineering students, public welfare
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