Engineers create the devices, software, chemicals, materials, machines, buildings, airplanes and other systems that make our daily lives better.
However, to successfully design for the diversity of the human experience, engineers must understand people — their clients as well as themselves — in addition to technology.
Enter the Human Systems Engineering program in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. This recently added program seeks to prepare students to consider both the human and technology sides of engineering by combining psychology and technical coursework.
Introduced as a major and minor in fall 2016, the program is being developed out of the applied psychology-focused courses offered in the former College of Technology and Innovation, which became the Polytechnic School in 2014. The merge became a unique opportunity for faculty members with backgrounds in psychology and an interest in education, such as Rod Roscoe, assistant professor of human systems engineering.
“We’re a group of psychologists in an engineering school, and I think that makes us a unique resource in the way we think about things,” Roscoe said. “There’s a growing appreciation for this kind of mind-set.”
Roscoe believes this human-focused approach to engineering will help attract, engage and retain students in engineering fields of study — and to integrate it into the Fulton Schools program, he’s taking his own iterative human systems engineering approach.
Prestigious Tooker Professorship leads the way
Roscoe’s efforts to improve engineering education at the Fulton Schools has earned him a prestigious Tooker Professorship to further his work. Tooker Professors implement innovative projects to increase engineering student retention and persistence, create more rewarding learning experiences, greater student diversity and provide experiences that give students a competitive edge in the job market. They’re selected through a competitive annual proposal process and appointed for one- to two-year terms.
“This is a wonderful encouragement and commitment from the Fulton Schools to the Human Systems Engineering program,” Roscoe said. “I think it shows that others appreciate the ‘human side’ of engineering and are willing to let us promote that approach. And I think all of us in the Human Systems Engineering faculty are committed to living up to those expectations.”
The Tooker Professorship began in 2011 with an endowment from ASU alumni Diane and Gary Tooker. The Tookers are passionate about attracting and retaining students in STEM fields with exciting learning environments, owing to their backgrounds as an elementary school teacher and CEO of Motorola.
Roscoe will leverage his Tooker Professorship to develop an engaging human systems engineering curriculum. He seeks to identify the needs, gaps and opportunities to introduce students to human systems engineering principles in ways that strengthen their engineering and how they conceptualize as well as solve engineering problems.
“We think that human systems engineering has the potential to be really engaging to the ASU students who are here to solve real problems, change the world and improve the world,” Roscoe said. “Doing these things involves not only strong technical knowledge and skills, but a good understanding of the ‘people side’ of real-world challenges.”
To foster an appreciation for a broader view of engineering’s role in society, Roscoe will first explore how students are currently applying human-centered engineering in their projects and survey prospective and current students to determine their attitudes toward psychology and engineering.
These activities will help Roscoe generate guidelines for aligning human systems engineering course content to students’ broader needs and interests.
To encourage students to pursue and engage in engineering, Roscoe will also develop a “problem-based recruiting” exercise to help prospective students think about being problem solvers and engineers.
“Students are more engaged and persistent when they have a passion and a purpose for what they do — when they can connect ‘stuff I’m learning’ to ‘stuff I want to do,’” Roscoe said. “Introducing students to the human side of engineering solutions could make that link more real and authentic to students at risk of ‘disconnecting,’ switching majors or even leaving ASU.”
To achieve this, students would brainstorm a problem that interests them and then come up with engineering and human solutions to the problem.
For example, if a student is interested in reducing infection risks in surgery, they may imagine engineering bacteria-resistant materials or new antiseptic drugs, but could also think of doctor, nurse and patient behavior adjustments that would decrease infection risks.
Recruiters can use this dual problem-solving approach to introduce prospective students to Fulton Schools programs that would enable them to solve these problems, as well as encourage them to consider human systems engineering courses or a minor to supplement their ability to solve human problems through engineering.
The analysis of these activities will help tell what the human systems engineering program should be teaching to excite and benefit students.
An emphasis on the human side of engineering can help with retention as well as engagement for students who highly value a sense of belonging and contribution, personal and real-world connections, and opportunities for people-centered or altruistic work that benefits society. Roscoe notes that these concerns are often important to groups that are underrepresented in engineering.
A course, a minor or a major all improve engineering education
Whether students pursue human systems engineering as a major or a minor or simply take the introductory course, Roscoe aims to make human systems engineering a helpful part of a Fulton Schools student’s education.
“We made sure that HSE 101, the intro freshman course, fills the social-behavior course requirement,” Roscoe said. “Engineering students can now take a course that is geared to engineering interests and that satisfies an important general-studies requirement.”
Other HSE courses cover a wide range of topics, including research methods, statistics, decision making and qualitative and quantitative methods. Some courses are geared more toward the psychology side, and Roscoe said they’re working on adding more of a technology focus to others.
“Curriculum design is iterative in the same way that the human systems engineering approach is iterative,” Roscoe said. “As existing and new students move through the program, students nearing graduation and alumni can also tell us what experiences they felt really prepared them.”
Taking a human systems engineering approach beyond ASU
Roscoe was also recently awarded a three-year, $300,000 research grant through the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education.
With engineering Assistant Professor Micah Lande, human systems engineering Associate Professor and program chair Rob Gray and human systems engineering Assistant Professor Scotty Craig, Roscoe will assess the progress made by his Tooker Professorship project with an eye on achieving a wider impact.
Their aim is to develop and test learning modules that integrate psychology and engineering for use in classrooms beyond ASU.
“The Tooker Professorship activities are primarily directed at strengthening Human Systems Engineering, the Polytechnic School and Fulton Schools,” Roscoe said. “The recent NSF award ensures that we’ll be able to test our ideas more rigorously and share them with a broader audience beyond ASU. We look forward to sharing the work with colleagues and contributing to the scholarship in this area. In turn, their input and expertise will improve our own program development.”