Why Unconventional Works in Engineering

"My mindset changed and I realized that there are almost no purely technical problems in the world."
- Aaron Sakulich, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Why Unconventional Works in Engineering

Why Unconventional Works in Engineering

by Aaron Sakulich, Associate Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

I went through a very conventional engineering program, and had very conventional, research-focused postdoctoral experiences. 

When I started as a professor, I thought I'd be the same type of professor that I had learned from: I would give a lecture, the students would memorize some equations, and then they'd regurgitate it on exams. 

Hey, it worked for me; why not?

I ended up taking a job at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), which has a very unique, active-learning focused approach to education. As part of this, all of our students, despite the fact that they are almost entirely STEM students, must do a social science project equivalent to a quarter of their junior year's workload. 

The purpose of this project is to show them that technology cannot be developed in a vacuum; the context of the social systems in which the technology is deployed is critical to whether or not there will be successful outcomes.

As I got more involved in these projects, my mindset changed and I realized that there are almost no purely technical problems in the world.

Morocco farm

I can remember one incident in particular that really cemented this concept in my mind. 

I was advising students that were carrying out their projects in Morocco, where I had lived during graduate school. One project involved repurposing a waste product of local farms and, while on a site visit, a student turned to me and said, “Back home, we would just feed this to our pigs!” 

We had a brief conversation on how this was a technologically, but not socially, appropriate solution - pork is not a popular product in North Africa.

Everything—pandemic response, climate change, poverty, food security, and so on—could easily be addressed with existing technology, but it's the social context that is lacking. 

WPI also had a strong KEEN program and held workshops every year. I resisted going for a few years because of the word “entrepreneurial”; I thought the workshops would focus on how to raise venture capital, incorporate start-up companies, and things like that. While there is value in that type of entrepreneurial activity and students having an understanding of it, that's not something I was extremely interested in.

But I eventually attended on the recommendation of a friend and found that the entrepreneurial mindset (EM) adds facets to the socially-conscious STEM education program I had come to value at WPI.

WPI students and KEEN


The workshop planted a seed in my mind that eventually grew into an ethics role playing activity that I deployed in my laboratory course. 

Last year, on the end of term survey, a student wrote that they wished all of the lab activities (which are very, very conventional) had been more like the ethics module. This really inspired me to add more unconventional, EM active learning activities to my courses.

So it is the project-based system at WPI that sparked my interest in the entrepreneurial mindset. I have very much valued my time at KEEN workshops and conferences, and as a Community Catalyst

These have been learning experiences where I can think through what I value about EM and how to best convey it to students.

Associated Content

How to Steal a River
Time: 3-4 hours

How to Steal a River: An Active Learning Module about Civil Engineering Ethics

Insert this module with lecture, discussions, and roleplay that exposes students to background content on aggregate science, ethics, and the 'Sand Mafia'--an organized crime group that illegally harvests raw materials (sand, gravel, etc.) for construction projects with total disregard to the ecological damage they cause! Students will be able to identify ethically complex situations in their professional lives, apply different ethical perspectives and concepts, and more.
Ethics Bowl and the 3C's

[Workshop] Ethics Bowl and the 3C's

The Ethics Bowl is a competitive case analysis format to foster the 3C's in students: Curiosity about ethical issues, making Connections between ethical ideas, and Creating Value through ethical understanding.
Taking Action on Ethics
Time: 1-2 class periods

Taking Action on Ethics

Insert this module into an existing class project to help students develop an action plan for ethics! Students are faced with an ethical dilemma and are guided to analyze the needs of all the stakeholders. They'll then determine how they will communicate the plan they developed to a manager.

Meet the Author

Aaron Sakulich

Aaron Sakulich, Associate Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Aaron's research focuses on developing new, more durable materials for use in infrastructure, which will lead to a lowered maintenance burden, improved user safety, and a reduced environmental impact. He is also very much involved in WPI's off-campus projects system, running sites in Panama City and Reykjavik. Aaron has served as an Engineering Unleashed Community Catalyst.

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