Start presenting engineering problems with human context, because that's how real engineering is done.
The engineering problem solving method (EPS), as it is commonly and classically taught, tends to remove the human and social context from consideration. While the EPS method produces well-posed problems with easily checked solutions, it unintentionally reinforces the worldview that engineering is value-free profession where the rigor of one’s technical analysis is more important than the context in which engineering is practiced . Recognizing this consequence, a growing body of literature calls for changing engineering education to be more human-centered through awareness of the limitations of purely technical solutions [2-5].
Help me collect some examples of what contextualized engineering problems
might look like, as seen in foundational courses.
Use them for inspiration, modification, and improvement.
You don't have to throw away your current course content.
Changing one’s approach to teaching in this way poses big challenges: how to add ideas to an overstuffed curriculum—particularly ideas that involve a disciplinary background different from what makes us comfortable, what kinds of human and social context to consider, how to not trivialize such concerns by doing a bad job, etc. Perhaps the question is not “What happens if this goes badly?” but “What are the consequences of not even trying?”
As a first encounter with EPS, statics courses are a place where efforts to introduce human and social context might be particularly effective—before years of core technical courses have established the priority of the technical over everything else. However, any change to the standard way of teaching statics must acknowledge that the course is already filled with content, as statics is often a prerequisite for all subsequent solid mechanics courses. Simple, easy changes are a good place to start.
A simple framework: a paragraph of context and a few questions
A first attempt to acknowledge context in statics problems might be as easy as adding one paragraph at the beginning and asking a few simple questions at the end. This paper will give a few different examples of what this approach to context might look like. The paragraph will authentically introduce the human and social context in which statics problems arise, acknowledging that simplifications are being made to make the situation well-posed. Next, the statics problem will be presented, much as it is usually done. Finally, the few simple questions will prompt students to consider the impact of the result—who, what, why, and how questions.
Identify example problems based on real-world situations that illustrate core technical ideas within your curriculum. Elaborate the problem description to place the situation in a human and social context. While keeping the technical questions basically unchanged, add “Reflect” questions at the end of the problem.
The goal is not to establish a definitive set of examples, but to demonstrate that acknowledging context in a core engineering course is feasible without wholesale rethinking of the content. Hopefully, this paper will encourage statics instructors, and engineering instructors in general, to consider taking steps to balance the EPS approach with acknowledgement of the human and social context in which engineering work takes place.
To get comfortable, read the NAE's "Educating the Engineer of 2020" report .
These questions require the student to move beyond the numbers, think about the relationship between the assumptions or “given” in the problem and the outcome, and consider an expanded role of engineering. This role places engineers not just as people who provide numerical answers, but who also can serve the public by considering the impact of engineering solutions on others.
I chose reflection questions that engineering educators could be expected to be comfortable with answering and leading a class discussion on. No extensive training in humanitarian engineering or social justice is required. Simply reading the National Academy of Engineering’s “Educating the Engineer of 2020” report  would be a good way for an instructor to prepare for these discussions.
Where might this lead? Towards a broader view of engineering while retaining the traditional skills.
Statics instructors will recognize the technical concepts seen in these problems as parallel to their usual example problems. However instead of featureless boxes, ropes, and forces, the problems here are contextualized in a meaningful way for students. The presentations of the context and reflection questions subtly challenge the view of what engineering is and is not.
Clearly, just three examples of this type would not be effective in changing the overwhelming number of decontextualized example problems that engineering students solve during their undergraduate years. But an individual instructor is rarely in a position to make such a change. Instead, instructors are encouraged to take advantage of their well-established right to present content in their own way. With an effort to transform a few problems at a time, soon an instructor would find themselves in possession of a complete set of contextualized problems. Implementing these problems either one at a time or as a complete set would make important progress towards the goal of establishing engineering as an explicitly human-centered profession.
No meaningful objection can be raised that the examples given here are not grounded in the “core” technical content of the class. They simply do a better job than usual in demonstrating that engineering work is done squarely within a human and social context. No formal assessment of these examples was performed, due to the limited quantity of examples. However, I suspect that a strong coordinated effort to use contextualized example problems throughout the required courses in a discipline would reap benefits not only in student retention and performance, but also in the number of graduates who see engineering as a profession that serves humanity.
References and further reading
 Gary Downey and Juan Lucena, “Are globalization, diversity, and leadership variations of the same problem? Moving problem definition to the core”, Keynote Address, Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, Chicago, IL, 2006.
 Jon Leydens, Juan Lucena, and Jessica Smith, “What’s Missing in the Technical? Rendering the Social Visible by Integrating Social Justice Where It Matters Most—Engineering Problem Definition and Solution”, workshop at the Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, New Orleans, LA, 2016, Session U471D.
 Juan Lucena, Jen Schneider, and Jon Leydens, Engineering and Sustainable Community Development, Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010.
 Donna Riley, Engineering and Social Justice, Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2008.
 National Academy of Engineering, Educating the Engineer of 2020, The National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2005.