The ME Course Column is a recurring publication about the unique classes and labs that mechanical engineers can take while at the University of Colorado Boulder. Follow the series to understand the core curriculum, discover elective course options and learn the broad applications of mechanical engineering skills.
The racial reckoning in summer 2020 led to an awakening in our consciousness – a need for everyone to look inward and tackle our own unconscious biases. Professor Janet Tsai is asking students to question these preconceived notions when it comes to mechanical engineering as well.
In MCEN 4228/5228: Design for Inclusion, Professor Tsai encourages students to “consider alternate approaches to design, to question how equitable and inclusive technologies can be built within a society and culture that has no shortage of inherent biases and exclusive traditions.”
The course challenges mechanical engineers to recognize that despite the diverse world we live in, engineering can be biased. The first unit of the course is dedicated to analyzing those prejudices in the engineering field.
“I try to pull in historical angles to show that some designs were not always chosen because they were the best idea, but because it was the idea they went with,” Tsai said. “As a result, all of these other ideas have cascaded down, and it can be hard to envision something new.”
Tsai points to the transgender bathroom movement as an example. The gender binary has been rooted in society for centuries, which has made it difficult for some people to see other options.
“It’s so eye opening when you start to question these assumptions and realize it doesn’t actually have to be that way,” Tsai said. “As a designer, it’s really powerful to come up with alternatives. We realize some of these constraints were never actual constraints, they’re just defaults and biases.”
The second unit moves into thinking about the consequences of engineering designs that cater to certain people while excluding others. Students discuss groups that have been harmed by technology, such as people living through the Flint, Michigan water crisis.
Once students are comfortable talking about these issues, the course’s third unit is more outward looking. The class focuses on applying the responsibility of equitable design to their future careers and communicating these ideas with the public.
“If we do care about making a difference, talking to people about the ethics of these designs and considering deeply how do I make a better design for everybody, then how do we engage the public in these big topics?” Tsai said she asks students.
The course culminates with students presenting public-facing showcases to familiarize themselves with public engagement and outreach through action. Various mechanical engineering alumni and industry partners attend the showcase each spring.
Design for Inclusion is the first course Tsai has designed from scratch. She is considering developing an industry training program with the same topics, after various mechanical engineering alumni reached out about design ethics and societal impacts in the workplace.
Throughout the course, Tsai’s focus is on people – the people that engineers are designing technology for and the engineers themselves. Tsai regularly invites diverse speakers to present to the class and students are encouraged to share their own experiences in engineering, many expressing fears of not fitting the mold of a ‘traditional engineer.’
Tsai’s strength in developing Design for Inclusion is giving students the space to talk and be vulnerable with their peers.
“I’ve really tried to model that in the class,” Tsai said. “On the first day, I tell students that I wanted to quit engineering many times. We don’t always feel like we belong. Knowing they’re not alone is helpful. We forget that students just need to hear that sometimes.”