Where Expertise Counts in Humanitarian Engineering
A comparison reveals gaps in students’ grasp of technical and social dimensions.
By Andrea Mazzurco and Scott Daniel
In humanitarian engineering (HE) contexts, projects often fail when engineers do not extensively consider the complexities of the social domains of their work, including meaningfully engaging stakeholders. Such projects demand socio-technical thinking, or the ability to integrate social and technical domains of knowledge and practice. This kind of thinking is a challenge to teach, learn, and assess because the literature doesn’t give us a clear understanding of its key features.
Our study sought to provide needed clarity by investigating what distinguishes the socio-technical thinking of an expert in HE from that of a novice. We used the Energy Conversion Playground (ECP) design task, a scenario-based assessment instrument first developed in 2014. We assigned the design task to 26 students starting their engineering degrees and 16 practitioners with extensive experience in HE. The ECP task poses a scenario in which the respondent is partnering with an NGO to develop a low-cost power system to generate electricity for the lights of a primary school in a developing country. Respondents are then asked to list, describe, and justify all the considerations they would take into account to address the problem. The responses were coded using a rubric we developed inductively to serve as our operationalized definition of socio-technical thinking. Three domains of considerations emerged: technology, people, and broader context.
Technology considerations focus on the system itself and fall into three categories: (a) input and constraints, (b) functionality, and (c) long-term technical. Aligning these categories with a linear design process, input and constraints considerations are usually more relevant in the early stages of scoping a project and defining requirements; functionality considerations become more prominent in the conceptual and detailed design stages; and long-term technical considerations are more relevant in the concluding stages. We found that experienced practitioners tended to list considerations across all domains, while students generally omitted long-term technical considerations.
The second domain, people, takes into consideration the stakeholders of the project. This domain reflects a genuine interest in understanding the needs, interests, desires, and expertise of individuals connected to the scenario, including the users, community members, and other stakeholders, and the extent to which their involvement is described. For this domain, we found that experienced practitioners tended to focus on stakeholder consultation and collaboration, whereas students generally viewed people as a constraint to the system.
Like technology, considerations belonging to the broader context domain are organized into three categories: (a) local norms, (b) laws and ethics, and (c) other socio-material contexts. Local norms considerations emphasize the need to understand aspects of the community such as local culture, social dynamics (for instance, gender roles and power structures), and religious views. The laws and ethics dimension consists of considerations focused on both formal and informal legal and ethical issues. The third category of other socio-material contexts addresses local infrastructure, the local economy, the country’s education system, and the environmental impact and sustainability of potential solutions. We found that experienced practitioners not only identified a larger breadth of contextual considerations but also recognized the complexity of these dimensions. Students, however, tended to make comparatively unsophisticated observations. For instance, students might merely mention “local culture” as a factor, whereas experienced practitioners would also consider the power dynamics hidden within the local culture that could prevent some groups from participating in the project.
Our analysis suggests that, in the context of HE, an expert socio-technical thinker considers both short-term and long-term technical issues, attempts to collaborate meaningfully with key stakeholders, and recognizes the complexities of HE project contexts.
Educators can use these results to develop and evaluate HE curricula. Further research is underway to track the development of socio-technical expertise over time and to expand the data set to investigate how different demographic and background variables such as gender, age, and years of experience affect participants’ response to the scenario.
Andrea Mazzurco is a lecturer of engineering education at Swinburne University of Technology. Scott Daniel will soon be a senior lecturer in humanitarian engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney. This article is adapted from “Socio-technical Thinking of Students and Practitioners in the Context of Humanitarian Engineering” in the April 2020 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.