On Drones and Socio-Technical thinking. Interview with Gordon Hoople and Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick
“Sociotechnical education is our way of talking about how to help students recognize the complex interconnection of the social and the technical. We bring students together from different majors, give them real problems to tackle, and then challenge them with reading and discussions that force them to face their own assumptions.” —Gordon Hoople
“As we developed the class, and later wrote a book together, we realized how much engineering wrestles with social issues (whether it recognizes this or not) and how much social change efforts are supporting or resisting changes that engineers dreamed up in the first place.” –Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick
I have interviewed Gordon Hoople and Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick. We talked about Sociotechnical education, the mission of The Good Drone Lab, their forthcoming book “Drones for Good. How to Bring Sociotechnical Thinking into the Classroom” and how to engage students in challenging conversations at the intersection of technology and society.
Q1. What is a socio technical education?
Gordon: Sociotechnical education is our way of talking about how to help students recognize the complex interconnection of the social and the technical. This is as true for classroom assignments as it is in real world projects. Is Wikileaks and Russian interference in the United States’ 2016 election a story about technology, a story about politics, a story about society, or a stunning admixture of all three? Students have a real 0-60 moment when they get their first real job–we want to give them a head-start in that process!
Q2. You are are co-directors of “The Good Drone Lab”. What is it?
Austin: The Good Drone Lab, which I started with Tautvydas Juškauskas in 2014, is focused on tinkering and experimenting with the potential drones have for promoting the greater good. We’re exclusively focused on applications that level the playing field between the powerful and the powerless. How can we democratize surveillance, and how can we hold authorities to account, even in protests? More recently we’re also interested in exploring how people from the technical arts (like engineering) can work alongside folks from the social sciences (like sociology or ethnic studies).
Q3. Why did a social scientist decided to collaborate with an engineer, and an engineer with a sociologist, and together on a book about drones and sociotechnical thinking in the classroom?
Gordon: For fun! We’d be lying if we didn’t say up front that we think drones are cool and that we like working with one another. We’d also be lying if we didn’t say that there was some money involved! In the fall of 2016 our colleagues received a National Science Foundation grant for “Revolutionizing Engineering Departments.” We thought this would be a cool effort to join, so we pitched a collaborative class and crossed our fingers.
Austin: As we developed the class, and later wrote a book together, we realized how much engineering wrestles with social issues (whether it recognizes this or not) and how much social change efforts are supporting or resisting changes that engineers dreamed up in the first place. So, we had a spark, and from there we’ve built some very interesting fires. I’m not sure about that analogy, though!
Q4. Why do disciplinary silos create few opportunities for students to engage with others beyond their chosen major? Why do you think that engaging students in challenging conversations at the intersection of technology and society is a useful thing?
Austin: Universities are fossils. They were dreamed up four hundred years ago, and have been ticking along with only minor modifications ever since. That’s not entirely true, and we’re fortunate to work in institutional spaces that welcome innovation, but for the most part academics are hived off into their disciplines, and do a pretty good job self-policing so that we steer clear of one another. That’s a good way to avoid accidents. The problem is that if I steer clear of Gordon’s area of expertise, then we might not bump into one another! So we organize to prevent happy accidents. We think that’s silly. The world is made up of both hidebound institutions and happy accidents. We want our students to see that.
Gordon: So our idea is to take hackathons and maker spaces one step further, and push students together from all these different academic silos. Engineers and social change students both have to leave the university to work with people very different from them. We’re just moving some of that engagement into the classroom and our class projects.
Austin: The real world is fundamentally sociotechnical. All the time international aid groups, for example, are launching new initiatives around clean water; we’re saying this is good, but engineers, nonprofits, and local communities should all be working together. The alternative is one actor setting off on their own, and this often has unintended consequences. I mean, you remember the One Laptop Per Child campaign? Later it turned out that the thing it taught every student to do was to download pornography. If we want stuff to stick, we have to think sociotechnically.
Q5. Can you please explain your socio technical approach to interdisciplinary education?
Gordon: We bring students together from different majors, give them real problems to tackle, and then challenge them with reading and discussions that force them to face their own assumptions. We pop into and out of small group discussions, ask all the engineering students to be quiet while they listen to peace studies students, then flip the roles. For a lot of our students it’s the first time they’ve done anything like this. It’s challenging, but they seem to like it.
Q6. Do you have any evidence-based pedagogies that your approach is working and is valuable?
Austin: Yes. First of all, students tell us it’s working. But we have also incorporated cutting-edge methods for measuring learning, and then published a bunch of that work in the usual academic outlets, like conferences and journals.
Measurement is central for us, because, even from the beginning, we were both very interested in figuring out whether our methods were translating to student learning in a way we could document. In an early iteration of the class we had the benefit of working closely with a post-doc, Dr. Beth Reddy, now a professor at Colorado School of Mines, who helped us by leading interviews, focus groups, and classroom observations to see what impacts we were having on the students. While we won’t rehash the full findings from those papers here, suffice to say we do think these methods are having a measurable impact.
Q7. What are the main obstacles for effective interdisciplinary teaching?
Gordon: Time! It takes time to do this right, to get on the same page, to communicate clearly to students. Students want to understand the material, and also want to know how to do well in a class. Fortunately, we both agree on those things, but it still takes time to plan the class, then to communicate everything to students in a way that adds more signal than noise.
Q8. In your book you write about The Ethics of Drones. Can you please elaborate on this?
Austin: We are very concerned that drone use will be reserved for the already-powerful. I’m a social movement scholar, and am focused on maintaining balances of power between the state and the people, and between the haves and the have-nots. What happens if only governments and big business have drones? We want to democratize access to important tools for holding the powerful to account. I wrote a whole different book about that (The Good Drone, MIT Press, link), and we wanted our students to wrestle with some of those broader questions, whether or not they agree with me.
Gordon Hoople is an assistant professor and a founding faculty member of Integrated Engineering Department at the University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. His work focuses on engineering education and design. He is the principal investigator on the National Science Foundation Grant “Reimagining Energy: Exploring Inclusive Practices for Teaching Energy Concepts to Undergraduate Engineering Majors.” His design work occurs at the intersection of STEM and Art (STEAM). He recently completed the sculpture Unfolding Humanity, a 12 foot tall, two ton dodecahedron that explores the relationship between technology and humanity. Featured at Burning Man and Maker Faire, this sculpture brought together a team of over 80 faculty, students, and community members.
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick is an associate professor of political sociology at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, and is concurrent associate professor of social movements and human rights at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and School of Sociology and Social Policy. His work focuses on politics, culture, technology, and social change. His recent books include The Good Drone (MIT Press, 2020) and What Slaveholders Think (Columbia, 2017) and shorter work has appeared in Slate, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Aeon, and HuffPo as well as articles in the requisite pile of academic journals.
– Drones for Good. How to Bring Sociotechnical Thinking into the Classroom. Gordon Hoople, University of San Diego, Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, University of San Diego, University of Nottingham, ISBN: 9781681737744 | PDF ISBN: 9781681737751 Hardcover ISBN: 9781681737768 Copyright © 2020 | 111 Pages, Morgan & Claypool.
– The Good Drone: How Social Movements Democratize Surveillance (Acting with Technology). Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, The MIT Press (July 28, 2020)
– Embedded EthiCS @ Harvard: bringing ethical reasoning into the computer science curriculum. ODBMS.org DECEMBER 17, 2019
– On CorrelAid: Data Science for Social Good. Q&A with André Lange.ODBMS.org AUGUST 28, 2019
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