What is Good, What is Bad?

The benefits of engineering education are known. Engineering graduates integrate scientific and engineering principles and develop products and processes that contribute to economic growth and other social advances. Thus, high-quality employment is created and new enterprises are established.

A typical graduate of a Canadian engineering program has capable technical skills. But have we taught her to separate the good from the bad?

When she restructures a process, will her focus only be on making it more efficient, or will she also ensure that the new process is ecologically sustainable?

Our curricula are designed to enable students to learn professional ethics as they are taught the codes of conduct that engineers must follow.

Students learn that the safety of the public is paramount, that they must remain technically competent while practicing, conflicts of interest must be resolved, and that they have a duty to inform a relevant authority whenever these principles are violated.

A 2013 study that followed US engineering students from their first year to 18 months after their graduation found that, on average, they became less interested in public welfare over time.

This is startling.

How can we better imbue students’ learning with social consciousness? Can we teach them what is good and what is bad?

My colleagues at McMaster and I believe that we can do so by familiarizing students with grand challenge problems and asking them to design locally relevant solutions.

Our students focus on understanding and developing solutions for the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), where the following sample is particularly relevant for engineering education.

  • SDG 3:  Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  • SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  • SDG 7:  Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  • SDG 8:  Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  • SDG 9:  Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  • SDG 11:  Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  • SDG 12:  Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  • SDG 13:  Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Solutions to grand challenge problems require that students conduct independent research and creativity, work in teams containing members from multiple disciplines, use the lens of equity diversity and inclusion, be aware that sustainable solutions must be integrated with viable business models, and realize that solving grand challenges demands serving people.

We offer our students the opportunity to learn through MacChangers, which is an intensive integrated extracurricular community engagement, innovation, inquiry, experiential and problem-based learning program.

Over the academic year, MacChangers teams develop a project on their topic of choice through full-group coaching sessions, workshops with guest speakers, panel discussions with subject matter experts and consultations with MacChangers faculty and staff members.

At the conclusion of the Winter term in April, each MacChangers team presents its project results to a panel of McMaster students, faculty and staff members, and community stakeholders and leaders.

Through this experience, MacChangers students develop skills, build connections and make a difference. They also use creative methods to bring about positive change to our community.

MacChangers students have reflected on the objectives of SDG 9, a grand challenge that requires engineers to restore and improve urban infrastructure.

Through an examination of two case studies, one with the Toronto Transit Commission and the other with the Edmonton Transit System, a MacChangers group conducted a feasibility analysis of the implementation of no cost fares for children aged 12 years and under who access public transportation in the City of Hamilton. 

The purpose of the project was to develop a solution that mitigated social inequality through transportation, removed stigma in accessing public transportation, and increased ridership and inclusivity.  

Informed by McMaster University student survey results and interviews addressing user experience of the City of Hamilton Bike Share Program (SoBI Hamilton), another group developed a proposal to strategically address issues of access for McMaster University students by developing a complementary ‘MacBike’ Program. 

Their proposal outlined the development of a student-led sustainable transportation action committee to work in close partnership with the City of Hamilton Sustainable Mobility Programs Office to develop an integrated bike share program, which would improve access, convenience, and user satisfaction with this transportation alternative.

MacChangers students also benefit by applying prior and acquired knowledge to tackle real-world problems for real-world clients, first by building empathy with the client, then defining and ideating a possible solution through design thinking and pivoting, and finally building a prototype solution and testing it along with the teams’ community partners. 

Participation in the MacChangers program also allows students to cultivate many of the professional skills that employers seek. They work in teams, develop leadership skills, learn how to identify the right problem, and how to design and implement a creative solution.

We ask MacChangers students to reflect on their “try and fail” leadership and team building experience so that they understand that there are a diversity of leadership and team development styles, which vary depending upon circumstance.

As they become more self-aware, students move beyond their inherent instinctual styles towards a deeper understanding of leadership.

The future of work will undoubtedly be difficult. We are future proofing our graduates through their technical depth, leadership, empathy, and transformative social consciousness.

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