This past semester, Leia Stirling’s students at the University of Michigan developed a wide array of outreach activities for K-12 students using wearable sensors that can measure people’s motion similar to a Fitbit or Apple Watch. She asked her students to define the specific age group they were targeting, what learning objectives they were trying to achieve, and how they would assess whether they achieved their outreach goals. Some teams focused on younger kids, developing activities to describe body motions, while other teams focused on older students with topics like the physics of motion or how to represent rotations. One group created a hands-on visualization using a Rubik’s cube to describe rotations around three-dimensional axes.
In this class, Stirling, who is a 2019-20 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow and associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering and core faculty in the Robotics Institute at the University of Michigan, brought together engineering, ethics, and public engagement as a unified set of ideas. She wanted her students to understand the algorithms for sensors to measure human motion, but also consider questions like: What are the implications of wearable technology to individuals and society? If we are collecting data from people, what do we do with it? What are ways we can use ideas from this class to engage in our community?
“That was actually a big thing I took away from the AAAS fellowship,” Stirling notes. “Science and engineering are not just about singular actions, algorithms, or objects; they include bringing many things together in different ways... In my course this past semester and going forward, I am going to talk about it this way: engineering is not just technology, it is not divorced from society -- it can be part of the inspiration of younger generations, or decision-making for policy, or socially responsible engineering. The fellowship allowed me to explore and learn about different types of public engagement. I was limited before in my thinking on what public engagement could be. Not everyone has to do everything - but it’s important for us as engineers to think about how we want to engage and realize engineering is not separate from social issues.”
Stirling received positive feedback about the class from the students, although they weren’t able to try out their outreach activities in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “They were going through so much this semester. So for them to come and say they were really excited about working on this project, even at home -- it shows the impact that engagement can have,” says Stirling.
Stirling had planned to incorporate and extend the activities her students created into a summer workshop for middle school-aged girls, also focused around wearables, the relationship between motion and art, and the science behind motion -- which she still hopes to do in the future.