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Ayush Gupta
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Sometime in 2011, I went to see a documentary Out in the Silence by Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer (Hamer is the NIH researcher who has worked on the genetic basis of homosexuality). In the documentary the filmmakers travel to a rural American town to try and understand the lives of gay teenagers who come out in these settings and the responses of people around them. Watching the movie, it struck me how for people who are resistant to a full acceptance of LGBT folks, it’s so much more than a single issue, or some black and white issue of tolerance and respect (or lack thereof). This is bound up in their sense of community, family, sense of self, ethics, religion, associated emotions, and epistemology (who to believe, what to count as true, what to count as right … in other words, some sense of where knowledge comes from). The belief about homosexuality, I felt, was entangled in the deep web of life. And similarly change was embedded in that same deep web of life.

It also made me feel how social change needs to be thought about in a systemic way. Part of the reason I wanted to do education work was to create social change. In research, though, sometimes I felt far away from all that. We worried about conceptions, epistemologies, sense-making … where was social justice. That documentary was a moment when some of these things came together for me.

I started thinking how can we marshall some of the understandings from how we learn to think about more responsible citizenship. And about how we think about ethics. From all this was born the idea that I want to explore how engineering students think about complex ethical issues. And maybe bring the machinery of knowledge in pieces, epistemology in pieces, emotions, identity, all that jazz about cognitive ecology to that analysis. A look at some of the available courses and materials left me with the feeling that these too sorta, kinda treat ethical issues in silos — like, which professional code of ethics is relevant to this case study? And the cases were often about immediate and interpersonal ethics (would you lie to your boss to save your job?), research ethics, cheating etc. or about disaster ethics (think Challenger disaster etc.). This was dissatisfying. I wanted to have environments where we can have extended discussions about grey areas, where there are no right and wrong answers, it is not clear how and which codes of professional conduct to apply, and where any decisions we take have cascading impact on the social, economic, environmental, political fabric of society at local and global scales. And we need to think about that impact as engineers and scientists.

Well, I did what academics do when they have an idea. I wrote a grant proposal. It got rejected. Second try. Funded! My co-conspirators were Andy Elby and Thomas Phillip (who has done some awesome work on teacher ideologies and bringing a knowledge in pieces framework to understand ideologies)

As part of this study, I started with some interviews with engineering and computer science students about how they think about roles and responsibilities of engineers in socio-scientific contexts. This is the first paper that I wrote on that data. Some part of me wants to share this. And some part of me is embarrassed because the analysis is not quite polished. But I guess, I need to start somewhere. … right?

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