söndag 6 juli 2014

The Global Dimension in Engineering Education

I was asked to contribute to a project about "The Global Dimension in Engineering Education" (GDEE) at the end of last year. More specifically, I was asked to write a book chapter to help university teachers get their engineering students engaged in "the global dimension". I was confused about many things - starting with the term "the global dimension". I had a chat with the project coordinator, Emily, back in February and I accepted the challenge after I understood more about the project. "The global dimension" refers to all non-technical topics that will impact the engineering profession at a global level over the next 20-30 years.  These topics include sustainability, but also globalisation, inequality, climate change etc. The goal of the project is to find ways to integrate these topics into “mainstream” engineering educations. Emily reached out to me because of the paper I wrote together with Elina Eriksson and that we presented at the conference Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) in September last year, "'It's not fair! Making students engage in sustainability".

The Global Dimension for Engineering Education (GDEE) project is funded by the European Commission and it is also a partnership with NGOs in Italy, the UK and Spain. The goal is to “develop the capacity” of engineering academics to teach topics related to the Global Dimension in their engineering educations. It turned out Emily actually works not of the European Commission, but for one of the NGOs involved - Engineers Without Borders UK.

The practical goal of the project is to produce a series of online courses and accompanying "resource packages" to be offered for free to EU engineering academics. The first three courses (out of nine)  were launched this spring; "Making a case for a critical global engineer", "Key elements for addressing the Global Dimension of engineering" and "The Global Engineer in Sustainable Human Development". A "course" consists (as far as I understand) of several "modules" and each module consists of several "sections". Each "section" consists of several different parts of which the most important parts are:
- A short book chapter on the subject matter in question (10-12 pages, 4000-5000 words)
- One activity ("examination") for the online course, including proposed evaluation criteria
- Pointers to additional resources (readings, videos, slides etc.)

I was asked to prepare a section on "the relevance of GD issues" which is part of a module on "The global dimension in teaching". Other sections in that module are:
- Key pedagogical/learning theories relevant to teaching GD topics
- What skills/competencies are needed for global engineers? Learning outcomes and teaching/assessment methods for “non-technical” GD courses.
- Intended Learning Outcomes.
- Teaching and assessment methods.

The target audience for all of these activities are university teachers who are interested in integrating GD topics into their (under-, post-)graduate courses. One of the challenges for these teachers are to get the students onboard, e.g. how do we get engineering students to care about “non-technical” subjects? In Emily's original e-mail to me she wrote that “Your paper, presented at the EESD Conference in Cambridge in September 2013 on how to engage students in sustainability education is similar in content to this session.” My task was thus to use the EESD paper as a draft version to be "repurposed" into a book chapter and the goal of my section was help other teachers communicate the relevance of the global dimension to engineering students. The emphasis was primarily on motivation and engagement and only secondarily on sustainability (in a broad sense).

It took some time and effort to reach the (perhaps still partial) understanding that made it possible for me to write the text you have just read (above). I have to admit that I'm still a little confused by all the different moving parts of this project and how they are supposed to work together. Beyond "courses", "modules" and "sections", there are also "resource packages", "blocks" and "sessions". It might be that "sections" and "sessions" refer to the same thing, i.e. that my "session" - "The Issue of Relevance" - is located "within Block C (Integrating the Global Dimension into Teaching and Research), Module 2 (The Global Dimension in Teaching: Theory and Practice)".

It all of a sudden comes back to me - all the reasons why I think any project that becomes endorsed at a pan-European level oftentimes is doomed to mediocrity or worse. Such projects often seem to become a matter of "design by committee". Despite having accepted to be part of this project, I still get irritated when I find it difficult to understand exactly what I am to produce and for exactly what purpose (how will my part fit with other parts?). I really feel I have to be exceedingly selective in the future any time I'm on the verge of becoming involved in a project that is endorsed by EU or at a supra-national level. It all just seems to become very complicated and with huge overhead costs for communication and coordination and perhaps in worst case also with (relatively) little output to show for it. I of course don't object to introducing the global dimension to engineering educations, it's just that I think that comparatively little will be accomplished when the initiative and the money comes "from the top" and where "the top" might as well have been located "in a country far far away".  I compare this with the sleeker KTH-initiated project to help teachers plan and teach project courses and that I wrote a blog post about half a year ago; "Handbook for project-based courses".

Despite these concerns, I am quite happy about the chapter I have written and I hope (but am by no means certain) that Emily will like it and that I don't have to change or work too much with it from now on. It turned out in the end that I did not only write a new version of our EESD paper, but rather a brand new text that draws on that paper and of Elina's and my latest paper, "ICT4S reaching out: Making sustainability relevant in higher education". We will present the new paper at the ICT4S conference in the end of August.

Here is the introduction to the book chapter I just submitted:

The Global Dimension: On getting students on-board


This practical text is written on behalf of university teachers who want their (engineering) students to “get on-board” and care about issues that are usually perceived to be outside the scope of (traditional) engineering educations. These issues pertain to “The Global Dimension” (GD), i.e. to primarily non-technical topics (challenges) that will impact the engineering profession at a global level over the next couple of decades.

These topics include but are not limited to climate change, ecological crises (e.g. pollution, species extinction etc.), globalization, surveillance, erosion of freedoms, militarisation and decreased prevalence of democracy, overpopulation, overconsumption, resource depletion, energy scarcity, water scarcity, overfishing, decreased food production, recession or depression (e.g. decreased or negative economic growth), jobless growth, increased unemployment, social instability, global poverty and inequality etc. The list is long and can be made longer, but it can also be compressed into three broad overarching topics; how can we create a sustainable society in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability (Brundtland 1992)? This short text does not aim to answer that particular question, but rather another, related question - namely how to get engineering students to care about and become engaged in such topics.

This text is written with a particular audience in mind. It is primarily an attempt to support individual university teachers as they plan and develop a course that treats GD issues. It is secondarily directed to someone who is in a position to commission such a course, for example someone who is responsible for an engineering educational programme. It would of course be desirable to not just develop and teach a single course on GD issues, but rather to integrate GD issues into a number of courses, or, to allow such GD issues to shape a whole educational programme (Mann et. al. 2009, Cai 2010, Sterling 2004). This text has a more modest goal though.

I personally teach a course for first year master’s students in a media technology engineering programme at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The one overarching challenge we work with in my course is environmental sustainability. My experiences and many of my examples will thus relate to environmental sustainability in particular, but, my aim has been to write this text in such a way that it is useful primarily in terms of student engagement. Still, the text would become very abstract and hard to read if I had to hang a long string of qualification to every statement, so, I will at times write the text as if your task too is to engage your students in the particular issue of environmental sustainability. My hope is that you easily can exchange this particular “preoccupation” of mine with your own preoccupation - be it issues pertaining to globalization, inequality, poverty, climate change or other issues.

This text is based on two articles I have written together with my colleague Elina Eriksson; “‘It’s not fair!’: Making students engage in sustainability” (Pargman & Eriksson 2013) and “ICT4S reaching out: Making sustainability relevant in higher education” (Eriksson & Pargman 2014).


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