2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

A Framework for the Classroom Use of Science-Fiction to Enhance Ethical Design Skills among Engineering Sudents

Presented at Student Division (STDT) Technical Session 3: Student Innovative Practice

In recent years, engineering educators have placed renewed emphasis on developing ethical design skills in their students. This is in response to the damaging societal effects modern technology continues to inflict on areas such as mental health, democracy, security, and more. In many instances, these effects were predicted by past speculative thinkers in science-related narrative work. In fact, science-fiction narratives often contain powerful ethical and moral arguments about the future of technology, proving fruitful for discussion, debate, and analysis in a classroom setting.

This project lays out and tests a new framework for integrating science-fiction into engineering education. The focus is primarily on the use of short-form storytelling, such as short films or stories, as these are most inducive for limited-class time environments. The project strives to give educators the tools they need to develop engaging conversations about science-fiction material after presenting it in class. To accomplish this goal, a series of four question categories were developed using the sequence “Recall, Reflect, Challenge, and Decide.” These prompts are designed to get students to map narratives of possible futures onto their own ideas. Questions under the “Recall” category prompt students to remember or infer specific details from a story. “Reflect” questions prompt them to connect these details with similar instances of a real-world emerging or current technology. “Challenge” questions allow students to dig deeper, examining the potential unseen impacts (positive and negative) that a future technology may bring. Finally, “Decide” questions allow students to audit their feelings, hopes, and concerns about an emerging technology.

Through this carefully designed sequence of questions, students will form connections, generate ideas, and think deeply about the unintended consequences of potential new technologies, all prompted from science-fiction narratives. These activities will prove essential to a well-rounded engineering education because in the end, it is these very students who will be building the technology of the future, and their ethical expertise is now more important than ever.

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