Educating future engineers - student perceptions of the societal linkages of innovation opportunities

Sine Celik*, Senni Kirjavainen, Tua Björklund

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference article in proceedingsScientificpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
115 Downloads (Pure)


Engineering education traditionally emphasizes technological solutions that focus heavily on students’ technical skills. However, for innovations that create an impact, it is essential to link this technical knowledge to societal considerations. This paper describes a problem- centered approach towards introducing mechanical engineering students to sustainable, ethical and collaborative innovation, through an analysis of student work and feedback gathered from a ten-week long pilot conducted as part of a compulsory, Master’s level, academic year-long Mechanical Engineering course.
During the pilot, student groups worked on broadly phrased challenges derived from an ongoing EU project on developing societal applications for technology, choosing one of seven challenges ranging from changing rain patterns in cities to IoT technologies and data security. Teaching was divided into three interconnected sections on sustainable development, technology and ethics, and collaboration. Each of these sections combined theory with practice through panels with experts from academia and industry and hands-on workshops, encouraging the students to consider multidimensional aspects of their chosen challenge and its consequences for the entire system it links to. A variety of design thinking methods were introduced for exploring the challenges holistically to define and reframe the problem at hand, identify ethical dilemmas and understand the needs of stakeholders for successful collaboration.

At the end of each section, students were asked to reflect on their incorporation of societal considerations to the challenge they were working on in the form of group reports. At the end of the pilot, the students presented a project proposal of a direction for solving their challenge. This paper looks at how engineering students operationalize multilayered aspects of societal issues through these reports and project proposals for 19 teams that completed both the first and last group assignment.

The results of this study suggest that introducing creative, holistic, problem-solving skills into engineering education in a hands-on manner creates numerous advantages for supporting the understanding of systemic, innovative solutions that have a societal impact and go beyond solving the technological problem. Nine sub-themes to sustainability, ethics and collaboration were identified from the deliverables; environment, economy and culture, fairness, privacy and responsibility, stakeholders, diversity and co-creation. The students’ ability to identify and apply these nine measured sub-themes of sustainability, ethics, and collaboration improved statistically significantly in seven out of nine themes.

The results of this study encourage linking engineering courses to societal issues through minor interventions, in order to encourage engineering students to apply a broader range of considerations in scoping innovation projects. Additionally, the coding scheme developed here can be used to gauge the level of consideration for societal issues given by students in their assignments, enabling more targeted interventions in a resource-light manner. Taken together, the results encourage iteratively developing evidence-based instruction for responsible engineering.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access
PublisherAmerican Society for Engineering Education
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2020
MoE publication typeA4 Conference publication
EventASEE Annual Conference - Virtual, Online
Duration: 22 Jun 202026 Jun 2020

Publication series

NameASEE Annual Conference and Exposition Proceedings
ISSN (Electronic)2153-5695


ConferenceASEE Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleASEE
CityVirtual, Online


  • engineering education
  • societal challenges
  • societal effect
  • innovation opportunities


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