Peer Review

Connecting Science and Technology Education with Civic Understanding: A Model for Engagement

Advances in science and technology have fundamentally transformed our lives. We live longer, travel faster and farther, and have ready access to more information, resources, goods, and services than previous generations would have thought possible. However, as new technologies emerge, new challenges arise. Computers have become pervasive--greatly facilitating communication and expanding access to information but also providing new opportunities for theft, loss of privacy, and corporate fraud. Rapid advances in biotechnology promise to alleviate disease and enhance quality of life, but at the same time, they raise difficult ethical and economic questions. New models for agriculture have made more foods more widely available, yet also create concerns regarding biodiversity, genetic modification, and rural sustainability. As an array of technologies drives economic growth, the resulting demand for energy threatens both the natural environment and our national security.

Virtually every important public concern involves scientific or technical issues. However, the extent to which advances in science and technology will meet fundamental needs of communities is uncertain. Science and technology education has too rarely involved social issues, and technological development has been driven more by opportunity and possibility than by human need. Future leaders in science and technology must better understand the societal contexts in which science and technology takes place. In an increasingly technological world, human progress and quality of life will increasingly depend on science and technology education that is informed by social and civic awareness and directed toward the needs of communities.

Calls for Civic Engagement in Science and Technology Education

With colleges and universities under public pressure to demonstrate their value, a consensus is emerging that preparation for civic responsibility must be part of general education, and also of education in the disciplines and professions. AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider (2003) has described civic engagement as "an organizing principle in today's discussions of higher learning," noting that in a knowledge-intensive society, we bear responsibility to "give our students practice in considering the implications of . . . different courses of action that may be based on their knowledge." Once considered the responsibility of primary and secondary schools, education for civic engagement is increasingly seen as an imperative for higher education.

Today's students will face the responsibilities of freedom in a complex, dynamic world that does not organize itself neatly into academic disciplines; they need preparation for participation in democracy as well as in the economy. To be responsible actors and effective leaders in their professions and communities, students of science and technology, in particular, must learn to make connections between academic learning, professional practice, and important public questions, so that as professionals and practitioners they can pose their own meaningful questions and seek sustainable, appropriate solutions.

The engineering profession recently articulated a clear call for change in how its future practitioners and leaders are prepared. ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (2004), has established new criteria that differ substantially from previous standards, requiring demonstration that students attain "an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility," "a knowledge of contemporary issues," and "the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context." Recently the National Academy of Engineering (2004) took a similar public stance, issuing a report entitled The Engineer of 2020 that calls for "engineers who are broadly educated, who see themselves as global citizens, who can be leaders in business and public service, and who are ethically grounded." Driven by professional imperatives, and also by emerging institutional desires to educate students for democracy, engineering and technology programs are seeking new strategies for helping students to understand their work in broader contexts.

Curricular change is never easily achieved, and science and technology present particular challenges for reform. Faculty members whose careers are based on specific expertise can understandably find it difficult to see connections between calls for educational reform and their own work, which is often more focused on the creation of new knowledge than on bringing that knowledge to practice. To help students think and work in context, we must venture outside our own disciplinary boxes--a cultural challenge with implications not only for the curriculum, but also for how the faculty is trained, supported, and rewarded.

Promising Practices for Civic Engagement in Science and Technology Education

Effective models for making science and technology education more context-based can address both national calls for change and institutional priorities. As colleges and universities explore ways to become better citizens of their own localities, any resulting collaborations between institutions and their communities present an opportunity that can merge well with the goals of preparing students for citizenship. The increasing presence of community service activity on U.S. campuses is laudable, but often this activity takes the form of volunteerism that is unconnected to the curriculum. Community service often lacks the type of engagement defined by as "the production of new knowledge and the placement of that knowledge in the service of moral aims" (Burns 2001). Student engagement also requires the presence of unscripted problems in the curriculum that challenge students to produce new knowledge and weigh the costs and benefits of multiple solutions.

Engagement, and the active learning role it implies for students, can result from a variety of pedagogical strategies that involve students in open-ended inquiry, especially in response to the needs of communities. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (Schneider 2001) has identified especially promising practices for promoting engaged, active learning that can help prepare students for social and civic responsibility, including collaborative inquiry, experiential learning, service learning, project-based learning, and integrative learning. These strategies typify an emerging vision for undergraduate education. Although not new, they are increasingly featured in programs of study in more consistent and intentional ways, in orientations, seminars, and learning communities; core courses in general education and the majors; and in capstone experiences. These engaging pedagogies help students bring together theory and practice to make connections between knowledge and real-world problems. In science and technology curricula, it is especially effective to tie these strategies to the disciplines, so that students begin to see connections between their fields of study and social contexts.

A Case Study in Civic Engagement for Science and Technology

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has featured pedagogies of engagement since the early 1970s, when the university adopted a project-based approach to undergraduate education. All WPI students, about 90 percent of whom major in engineering or science, must complete a series of three projects that collectively help them to make connections between theory and practice and to better understand themselves and their world. In the junior year, students complete the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), an interdisciplinary project that helps students understand how science and technology affect society, and also how science and technology can be more responsive to social issues and human needs.

The IQP is equivalent in credit to three courses, but it is not organized as a course. Students work in small multidisciplinary teams--typically two to four students--under the guidance of faculty advisors, addressing problems that are usually posed by an external sponsor. After being given an open-ended problem description, student teams establish project goals, conduct background research, and collaborate with advisors and sponsors to pursue the project goals. Typically, field work is involved to gather information relevant to the project, and social science methods inform the analysis. In addition to whatever system, product, or recommendations are appropriate to the problem at hand, students develop a formal written report, and also orally present the results of their work to faculty advisors and the sponsoring agency.

The educational goals of the IQP include critical and contextual thinking, written and oral communication skills, teamwork and professional skills, and in particular an understanding of the interrelationships between scientific and technological advance, societal structures, and human need. Student teams and faculty advisors come together from different disciplines--engineering, natural sciences, management, social sciences, and the humanities--bringing different perspectives to bear on problems that may or may not be related to their areas of specialization. The majority of projects are completed in close collaboration with governmental agencies, nongovernmental agencies, and not-for-profit organizations.

WPI has been able to sustain this interdisciplinary project because it is central to the curriculum, an academic requirement for all undergraduates. Faculty members from every academic department participate, often in multidisciplinary teams. WPI's Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division serves as a campus-wide resource, supporting student preparation and faculty development for the IQP as well as providing administrative oversight to a worldwide network of project centers at which IQPs are conducted. Exploiting WPI's unique academic calendar, the project center model allows students to complete their IQP by working full time during one seven-week term, focusing on their research, fieldwork, and interactions with the sponsoring agency and the community.

While approximately 30 percent of WPI students pursue IQPs on the WPI campus, about 50 percent of WPI students complete the IQP abroad at project centers in Australia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Hong Kong, Italy, Namibia, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. The other 20 percent of students complete their projects at WPI's domestic project Centers in Boston, San Juan, Washington, DC, and in the university's home city, at the Worcester Community Project Center.

Engagement in Democracy and Local Issues

The Worcester Community Project Center (WCPC) was established to provide opportunities for engagement in local affairs and to make focused contributions to WPI's home city. Like most midsized U.S. cities, Worcester, Massachusetts, faces challenges involving economic development, environmental quality, planning and infrastructure, cultural preservation, and enhancement of quality of life for a diverse population. Projects at the WCPC involve student teams with municipal government offices, local schools, community development organizations, and grassroots efforts to promote a better future for the city. Examples of these projects include the following:

  • Urban Planning: Working with the Office of the Mayor, student teams developed plans for a business park and an arts district, as well as for brownfield redevelopment.
  • Economic Development: Working with the city manager and chamber of commerce, student teams developed marketing strategies and recommended new parking and transportation plans.
  • Community Development: Working with a local community center, students developed a "green" building design to attract external funding for development.
  • Public Safety: Working with the Parks Commission, students developed an auditing and maintenance system to reduce injuries at the city's playgrounds.
  • Education: Working with Worcester Public Schools, a series of project teams helped develop and evaluate a state-mandated curriculum in engineering.
  • Environmental Protection: Working with the Greater Worcester Land Trust, a student team mapped land-use history to prioritize acquisitions for conservation.

Faculty-conducted program reviews of the IQP have indicated that students demonstrate high achievement of learning outcomes at the project centers, where projects bring students into direct engagement with local organizations and issues. WPI has found that students perform at their highest levels when tackling real-world problems that help them see how their knowledge and skills can be put to use in ways that are meaningful and useful to others outside of the university.


To prepare students for responsible leadership in an increasingly interconnected and technological world, colleges and universities are seeking strategies for connecting science and technology education with civic and social understanding. Engaging students in community-based problem solving can help students see science and technology in the larger contexts of public policy and quality of life while also promoting collaborative capabilities, critical thinking and communication abilities, and professional skills.

To engage students of science and technology in meaningful problems, institutions need look no further than their own communities. Municipal offices, community development organizations, and school systems are typically beset with challenges that can benefit from student and faculty work, and can serve as settings for rich and powerful learning experiences. High levels of engagement are likely when students are asked to address compelling, real-world problems in collaboration with local organizations.

Today's students of science and technology will grapple with tomorrow's challenges of energy and the environment, public health, infrastructure, public safety, and urban sustainability. The extent to which scientific and technological advance will be responsive to those challenges depends largely on whether our students learn to make wise decisions as professionals and citizens. Now is the time to help our students begin to see science and technology in broader contexts.


Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). 2004. Criteria for accrediting engineering programs. Baltimore, MD: ABET.

Burns, D. 2001. Students and the engaged academy. Liberal Education 87 (1): 2-3.

National Academy of Engineering. 2004. The engineer of 2020. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Schneider, C. 2001. Toward an engaged academy: New scholarship, new teaching. Liberal Education 87 (1): 18-27.

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