The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Project: An Investigation of the Shift in Responsibility Between a Governing Body and its Citizens

Johnson, Kristian, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Odumosu, Toluwalogo, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals played an essential role in the decision-making process of my technical project - a device that can provide cool air to citizens of impoverished countries without consuming more electricity than the photovoltaic panels can produce. The idea for this project originated from an engineering faculty member at the University of Virginia. My team accepted the idea for our project as an opportunity to have a large impact on humanity. As with any innovative design, one must also consider the direct impact on society. In my STS research, I searched for aspects of the project that could negatively impact society - from mining required elements to manufacturing the device and even regarding the final product in circulation.

The technical portion of my thesis produced a portable, inexpensive, solar-powered fan for citizens in developing countries. The design included five photovoltaic panels that powered the fan and stored any excess energy in a lithium-ion battery for later use. The circuitry also allowed for the simultaneous spinning of the fan and charging of the battery. The enclosure was designed to be portable and allowed for removing the fan from the main compartment that housed the photovoltaic panels. In the event that the product did not function properly, the simple assembly and the use of standard components allow the user to repair the unit. The entire project cost approximately $30 if it were mass-produced; this is a significant improvement in total cost compared to competing products that can range up to hundreds of dollars.

The STS portion of my thesis involved researching the ethical impact that my project imposed on society. My research revealed that there were several negative impacts created from the production of my technical project. Two of my project’s primary components, the photovoltaic panels and the lithium-ion battery, release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere during manufacturing. These chemicals have the potential to pollute nearby bodies of water, harm local wildlife, and harm the workers involved in the manufacturing. While this pollution has a significant negative impact on the environment, the most critical factor that I discovered was the cause of a shift in responsibility between the country’s governing body and its citizens. If my technical project were mass-produced and distributed to individuals in developing countries that lacked electricity, the government would no longer see a need to intervene and take responsibility for the electrification issue. The citizens would then be responsible for maintaining the devices without the aid of the responsible governing body. This shift in responsibility would also cause a break in the citizens’ trust in their government to protect and provide.

Both the technical portion and STS portion of my thesis were substantial in the overall conclusion of my research. During my technical project design, I was aware of the environmental impact on society from my team’s project. Still, it was not until I conducted further research in my STS classes that I became aware of the potential shift in responsibility and the breaking of trust between a governing body and its citizens. I was able to conclude that my team’s project may not be the best use of funding in solving the electrification issue in developing countries and that it does not work as a standalone solution. Instead, the available funding could improve the electrical grid, or my team could manufacture our design to aid foreign governments in solving their lack of electrification issues. Throughout my research in my technical project and my STS classes, I realized the importance of both projects and the learning experience intended for each student during their final year of undergraduate studies. My STS4500 professor really challenged me in my research and allowed me to grow in my engineering mentality - thinking about more than just the project’s technical aspects, which I believe is the goal of the fourth-year capstone project and STS research.

I am extremely grateful for my ECE-4991 technical capstone professor, Dr. Harry C. Powell Jr. (Associate Chair for Undergraduate Programs - Electrical and Computer Engineering), as well as my STS-4500 professor, Toluwalogo (Tolu) B. Odumosu (Assistant Professor of Science, Technology & Society, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering - Engineering and Society, Electrical and Computer Engineering). Dr. Powell is my technical advisor and was an irreplaceable asset in the inspiration and design of my technical project, as well as a large portion of my technical engineering knowledge. Dr. Odumosu is my STS advisor and provided me with invaluable STS skills that I will continue to use throughout my career as an engineer. I am eternally grateful for the support that I received from both of these individuals throughout my time as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Sustainable Development Goals, Does improved technology mean progress
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