Control Systems Engineering and Social Justice

Who We Are

The principle investigators for the project are Kathryn Johnson (Electrical Engineering), Jon Leydens (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences), and Barbara Moskal (Applied Mathematics and Statistics).

Our graduate student research assistants are Sepideh Kianbakht and Deborah Silva-Ortiz (both Electrical Engineering) and our undergraduate research assistant is Justin Fantasky (Mechanical Engineering).

What is Social Justice?

Our team has defined social justice as "engineering practices that strive to enhance human capabilities (goal) through an equitable distribution of opportunities and resources while reducing imposed risks and harms (means) among agentic citizens of a specific community." Social justice is closely tied to care for the natural environment because equitable access to clean water, clean air, and Earth's resources is an important element of human rights.

What's This Research About?

The research project "Social Justice in Engineering with a Focus on Control Systems" examined social justice within a control systems course required for electrical and mechanical engineering students at the Colorado School of Mines. Social justice is a key element of the "sustainability triangle," with economics and the environment forming the other two axes. However, whereas economics has long been considered an important part of engineering education and the environment has gained significant ground in recent years, social justice receives very little attention within typical engineering curricula. Therefore, most engineering graduates are unprepared to perform thorough assessments of the social justice implications of their engineering decisions and designs.

Using a mixed-methods approach, the team has assessed the state of social justice awareness of the junior- and senior-level students entering the class, which provided information about its presence elsewhere in the curriculum. This initial survey was followed by focus groups and semi-structured interviews for selected students. Results are described in the papers listed below.

What's Next?

We are happy to discuss the research with engineering educators interested in integrating social justice into their technical engineering classes. Please contact Kathryn Johnson for further information.

Additional Resources

Here are some ideas and examples for ways to integrate social justice into your classes. Note that we found that active methods, especially on homework and project assignments, were more effective than in-class presentations and discussions. Check back soon; we are adding more information to this section as we work to disseminate our efforts with colleagues and gather their feedback.

Passive class resources

  • After a semester with no explicit definition of social justice, we began to use this one as a baseline for discussion with students.
  • We found it useful to establish our goals for social justice integration up front, using a little humor to reassure students that we were not pushing a political agenda.
  • Social justice criteria (coming soon)

In-class activities and discussion prompts

  • Some discussion prompts were quite simple, but still encouraged a broader outlook.
  • Others were considerably more involved, and tied explicitly to the social justice definition.
  • Sometimes students were assigned a prompt for homework, which was then followed by an in-class discussion.
  • We found that students tended to like talking about how they learn, which could also be easily tied explicitly to the elements of social justice.

Homework problems

  • Perhaps due to their active nature, students who participated in focus groups tended to recall homework problems more readily than in-class discussions. Here is an example of a relatively brief tie of a homework problem to social justice concepts.
  • A more involved but also more memorable exercise had students first try a homework problem rewritten by the course instructor and then revisit it, comparing it to the original problem without social justice context on a later assignment in a reflection exercise.
  • We also asked students to rewrite a class problem themselves to place it in a social justice context.

Final project

  • Our semester project required students to motivate ("set") the problem using social justice and to define at least one technical criteria to address a social justice element.
  • The project felt like the most natural way to connect control systems engineering to social justice of all of the techniques we used.

Publications and Presentations

  • Johnson, K., J. Leydens, B. Moskal, and S. Kianbakht, "Gear switching: From 'technical vs. social' to 'sociotechnical' in an introductory control systems course," Proceedings of the American Control Conference, Boston, MA, 2016. Available here
  • Johnson, K. J. Leydens, and B., Moskal, "Reflections on the Integration of Social Justice Concepts into an Introductory Control Systems Course (Work in Progress)," Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA, 2016. Poster available here (PDF).
  • Leydens, J.A. and Lucena, J.C. (2016). "Making the invisible visible: Integrating engineering-for-social-justice criteria in humanities and social science courses," Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA, 2016.
  • Leydens, J.A., Lucena, J.C., and Smith, J.M., "What's Missing in the Technical? Rendering the Social Visible by Integrating Social Justice Where It Matters Most--Engineering Problem Definition and Solution," Three-hour Workshop with 22 participants. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA, 2016
  • Leydens, J.A., "Rendering visible the social justice dimensions in engineering education," University of Toronto, Engineering Communication Program's 20th Anniversary Speaker Series (Invited), Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2016.
  • Johnson, K., Leydens, J. Moskal, B., Fantasky, J., and Silva, D., "Social Justice in Control Systems Engineering," Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Seattle, WA, 2015.
  • Lucena, J.C. and Leydens, J.A., "From Sacred Cow to Dairy Cow: Challenges and Opportunities in Integrating Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses," Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Seattle, WA, 2015.
  • Leydens, J.A. and Lucena, J.C., "Engineering Justice: Transforming Engineering Education and Practice," Webinar for Scholarship in Engineering for Social Justice: A Practitioner's Forum, May 20, 2015. Participants included members of the International Journal of Service Learning in Engineering Listserv as well as professionals interested in Humanitarian Engineering, Social Justice, and/or Community Engagement.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number EEC-1441806. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.