Johanna Lönngren on Wicked Problems in Engineering Education

Consider for a moment the general problem of climate change. It is certainly one of the most urgent and important problems facing humanity today, and yet we have had a very difficult time making sustained progress on it. There is good reason for that. There are several influential stakeholders in the world who have a vested interest in misdirecting and opposing any meaningful reform. The various aspects of the climate change issue — pollution, renewable energy, greenhouse gases, wildlife conservation, the economy, to name a few, are densely interwoven in ways we do not fully know or understand. Furthermore, with the rapid advances in technology, this connectivity itself is quickly changing with time, making it that that much more challenging to keep up with. That is why it is considered to be a wicked problem.

In this context, the wickedness does not have a moral connotation as such (although one can argue that we have a moral obligation to combat climate change). A wicked problem is characterized as one that is particularly difficult to solve, perhaps even impossible, due to constraints and parameters that are themselves evolving, intersectional and not completely known. Wicked problems abound in various aspects of human civilization, particularly in sustainability and the environment, and working on them is an important part of ESW’s long-term objective.

To help us at ESW understand these challenges better, I had an interesting and detailed email conversation with Johanna Lönngren, a PhD candidate in the Engineering Education Research Group at Chalmers University of Technology. Johanna’s specific focus is on the approaches that engineering students have towards wicked sustainability problems; her doctoral dissertation is titled Wicked Problems in Engineering Education : Preparing Future Engineers to Work for Sustainability. She has also been involved in creating and teaching a sustainable development class at Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering, as well as related modules at Chalmers.

What would you consider to be some of the most pressing wicked problems in sustainability today?

One challenging characteristic of wicked problems is that they interact with other wicked problems. Therefore, when we focus on one problem, we should always consider how our attempts to address that problem may influence or even create other problems. Personally, I consider climate change one of the most pressing problems of our times, exactly because we know that it creates a whole range of new problems that we may not be prepared to deal with. If we are unable to reduce and manage climate change, I expect dramatic consequences for both ecosystems and many human societies. One such consequence(and another wicked problems)is acute water shortage in many parts of the world. Lack of (clean) water is a major cause of illness and early death. Itis also an important driver for migration, which in turn can lead to social problems such as segregation, racism, and violent conflict.

What would you consider are the consequences of not preparing students to solve wicked problems?

First of all, I don’t consider wicked problems to be “solvable”. Rather, I view wicked problems as difficult situations that we need to deal with in an environmentally sound and socially just way. In that way, wicked problems are very different from the kinds of problems that most engineering students are taught to solve, such as math sor physics problems that can be correctly solved with an appropriate algorithm. Some people argue that engineers do not need to be able to address wicked problems, since they are supposed to develop technology rather than address social and political problems. However, research has shown that real-world engineering problems are much more similar to wicked problems than to maths and physics problems.

Also, engineers develop technology that greatly influences social life and the environment –just think of the immense influence that transportation and information technology has had on different societies around the world, both positive and negative. If we do not prepare engineering students to address wicked problems, they may develop technology that unintentionally contributes to creating or aggravating wicked problems — rather than addressing wicked problems and contributing to create a more sustainable future.

With ESW, we promote sustainability through out of the classroom experiences via hands on projects. How do you see this contributing to education engineers in solving wicked problems?

Wicked problems are so complex and intractable that it is difficult to learn to address them without practically engaging with them. Wicked problems also cannot be addressed in a purely cognitive manner; values and emotions play an important role that is often neglected, especially in engineering education where we often hold onto an illusion of value-free and objective approaches to problem solving. I think that hands on experiences with addressing wicked problems can provide students with an opportunity to engage with values and emotions in a safe environment.

However, I think that such activities need to be carefully scaffolded to help students through emotionally challenging experiences. In my research and teaching, I have found that many engineering students become frustrated when they are confronted with problems where value conflicts, ambiguity,uncertainty, and seemingly “irrational” behavior make it impossible to arrive at unambiguously “good” solutions. I have also found that this frustration can lead students to conclude that it is not possible to do anything at all to address the problem and to give up trying.

I also think that it is important to design and teachout of the classroom activities in close collaboration with local communities. Students need to learn to engage with and listen to local communities; they need to become sensitive to the different ways in which wicked problems can be understood and experienced, and different cultural and individual preferences for addressing each problem

In your opinion, what approach is effective to motivating/incentivizing engineering students to work on wicked problems in sustainability? Do we focus more on making it easier for students who

care about sustainability at a personal level to find project and research ideas, or on trying to get students to care more about sustainability in general?

Much of the current focus in this area is on individual students’ (lack of) motivation to contribute to sustainability. I think that an alternative and possibly more effective approach can be to focus on the culture in engineering education and to try to develop a culture that encourages students to care about sustainability. Recent research has suggested that social and political questions are systematically defined out of mainstream engineering education. With subtle messages, students seem to be encouraged to develop a narrow technological focus that makes it difficult for them to develop deep moral concern for sustainability and to explore the importance of values and emotions in addressing wicked problems.We need to better understand why and how this happens and how we can develop a culture in engineering education that encourages rather than discourages social and political engagement for addressing wicked problems. If we manage to develop such a culture culture,I expect that students and teachers will care more about sustainability and be more motivated to engage in specific sustainability-related projects.

In your experience, for engineering students of today, do you find the idea of sustainability more appealing as some sort of moral obligation, or as an exciting and lucrative new field to work and research in?

My experience is that many incoming engineering students have a strong desire to do good for society and contribute to sustainability. However, maybe because of the dominant cultural values in engineering education, students’ desire to contribute to sustainability seems to decline as they proceed through their educational program. Unfortunately, my experience is that most engineering students are taught to prioritize market values rather than sustainability values.

However, my experiences and much of the research in engineering education is focused on European and US contexts. In other national and cultural contexts, other values may be prioritized. For example, I recently attended a conference on engineering education research in Colombia. During that conference, I got the impression that engineering education in Colombia may foster a much stronger sense of social responsibility and a view of engineering as an important part of the current peace process in the country. I particularly remember a keynote presentation from a Colombian speaker who talked about the need for engineers to develop new materials that can be used to build roads to areas that were previously controlled by drug cartels. Building these roads would make it possible for people in those areas to make a living from, for example, agriculture –rather than drug trade. Thus, engineers’ work to develop new materials would contribute to a sustainably addressing the problems of poverty and violent conflict across the country.

In many European and US contexts, engineering is instead framed as aiming to develop more and more advanced technology for economically privileged customers– with the ultimate aim to support economic growth rather than social and environmental sustainability. I think that we have a lot to learn from our colleagues in other parts of the world. There are plenty of social and environmental problems to address also in our local communities.

Which academic departments do you think have important roles to play in wicked problems for sustainability?

I would argue that all academic departments have important roles to play in addressing wicked problems. Each department has specific competences and can play different but equally important roles. However, this is only possible if students, teachers, and researchers are able to collaborate across departments in inter-and transdisciplinary projects.We need to expose students, teachers, and researchers to different perspectives on wicked problems; we need to explore different value systems and conflicts of interest. But we also need to understand that we cannot solve wicked problems within the academy alone. We also need to engage with non-academic stakeholders from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds since they may have different understandings of how wicked problems should be defined and addressed.

If you were suddenly the chair of an engineering department tomorrow, what would be your first act?

First, I would want to work with the teachers at the department to create an overview of the kinds of problems that students are taught to solve or address. I would then want to engage the teachers in seminars and workshops to collaboratively explore ways in which more wicked problems could be introduced into the curriculum. I would also want to try to engage students, teachers, and researchers in a collaborative dialog about what cultural values are dominant at the department and about how we could develop a culture that more strongly encourages engagement with social and political aspects of wicked problems. Finally, I would want to encourage teachers to develop activities in which students engage with local communities;all students should get opportunities to better understand what these communities care about, what they experience as pressing problems, and how they would want to address some of these problems.