ByGeorge! Online

Feb. 19, 2002

Engineering for Social Change

SEAS Course Seeks to Teach Social and Ethical Analysis Skills to Help Better Evaluate Technology

By Greg Licamele

The objectives are clear: read, think, speak, write. That’s what C. Dianne Martin, professor of engineering and applied science, expects from the 85 students in her “Technology and Society” course.

In other words, there’s no computing in this computer science class.

Instead, she aims to teach the ethical and social analyses skills necessary to evaluate technology historically and practically.

“I try to impress upon the students that there’s no such thing as value-free technology,” Martin says. “The fact that we create a particular technology means there are values attached to it. We can’t cop out and say I’m just a computer programmer, or I am just a software engineer and I don’t have anything to do with ethics. Everything you design is going to have an impact on some aspect of human life.”

Martin and her students take this philosophy outside the classroom to non-profit organizations in DC. For 30 percent of their grade, students must conduct a social impact analysis to provide technology assessments for social service agencies such as Bright Beginnings Day Care Center, Bread for the City, Whitman-Walker Clinic, and Emmaus Services for the Aging. Between the beginning of March and the end of the semester, students in groups of three or four must make site visits to their assigned organization. Using survey and data collection methods, they must determine how computers impact people. Do users view computers as a help or a hindrance to their job? Do they have troubles with the interfaces such as Banner or Oracle? At the end of the process, students must submit a technology report to the organization. More often than not, these organizations are peppered with old and second-hand computers. Frequently, the state of the hardware is where the trouble starts.

“They’ve often found the computers are obsolete and they are donated,” explains Martin. “The staff members are trying to work with this equipment and they are feeling guilty that there is something wrong with them. Our students look at it and say, ‘Hey, the hard drive has been yanked out of this computer, this isn’t your fault. This is a computer that’s been cannibalized and then donated to you.’ ”

Martin says students come back to class outraged over some of these situations.

“They say, ‘There ought to be a law against corporations being able to do this,’ ” Martin says. “They are learning more than they expected to learn when they go into it.”

Martin acknowledges a love-hate relationship for this course.

“It’s a bit of a hard sell to students because they look at the syllabus and they say this doesn’t look like computer science,” Martin says. “They’ll come out of the class and say ‘this is one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever had, but it doesn’t seem relevant.’ But when they come back two or three years later, they’ll say, ‘You know, I’ve ended up doing all of this usability testing with people. I’ve had to interview end-users.”

These end-users are receptive and appreciative of GW’s help. Working through the Office of Community Service, Martin identifies organizations students can assess. Other teams work on campus in places such as the University Police Department and the Registrar’s Office.

In addition to the site work, students must research a topic associated with that organization. For instance, Whitman-Walker Clinic students might research technology and privacy, while those at a day care center may examine children and the digital divide.

Martin has taught this class since 1983, but only since 1994 did she incorporate community service organizations and the social impact analysis. Her passion for this class stems from her liberal arts undergraduate work and her doctoral degree in education. With a master’s degree in computer science sandwiched in between, Martin has brought her eclectic education to GW and to computer science programs around the country.

Using a grant from the National Science Foundation in 1994, Martin invited 25 national experts to GW to explore this relationship between technology and society. During the next three years, these experts defined the learning objectives for this type of course.

“We are perceived as leaders in this area in helping to define the actual curriculum content,” Martin says. “A computer science department any where in the country can now understand the course requirements.”

As computer science students might not realize the relevance of the course immediately, the short-term benefit helps a DC non-profit group, while the long-term benefit focuses on the overall development of the freshly minted computing wizards.

“The public depends on all of the technologies created by these students,” Martin says. “So they have to have a deep sense of responsibility that they are serving a dependent public and they are a professional. As a professional, they have a high level of ethics that are expected of them. You cannot separate technology and society anymore. They are intertwined.”


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