Skip to main content

Leia Stirling Brings Together Engineering, Ethics, and Engagement

Leshner Fellow Leia Stirling at the U.S. Capitol during her June 2019 AAAS orientation.
Leshner Fellow Leia Stirling at the U.S. Capitol during her June 2019 AAAS orientation.
Photo credit: Mary Catherine Longshore/AAAS

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.  

This student project helps explain how local axes can change.
Several students in Leia Stirling's course used a Rubik's cube as a visual to explain how local axes can change.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Leia Stirling

Stirling moved to the University of Michigan in the fall of 2019, and she has been happy to find many existing resources, activities, and conversations to support public engagement by its scientists. She plans to contribute by facilitating more engagement from within her department -- connecting graduate students, in particular, to all the resources available at the university level and making public engagement part of their process when they enter. She intended the first step to be a AAAS communicating science workshop in March, provided as part of her fellowship. This will now happen later this year or the following spring.   

One of the ways Stirling has often made her public engagement happen is working with graduate students who are interested in helping her with it. This has led to waves of activity, as graduate students complete their degrees and incoming students do not necessarily have the same engagement interests. Stirling is exploring options for additional public engagement funding, with the eventual goal of hiring someone focused on leading engagement efforts with her research group.

“An individual PI can’t do everything,” Stirling says. “I can work with institutional resources as well as generate funding to build a team to make these efforts sustainable and self-sufficient.” Her public engagement goals include developing resources and activity kits that others, particularly in under-resourced communities, can use, which align with their education standards.  

Another Leshner Fellow alumna, Meghan Duffy, is also at the University of Michigan, and the two talked recently about their experiences as Stirling’s year was coming to an end. Stirling felt there was so much still to do, but she viewed the fellowship as a starting point and a learning year. “I see this year as opening my eyes to the opportunities and methods that I can use. There is a lot more I want to do in the future.” Duffy said she felt much the same way: she was able to do some things during the year, and to build on those since then.

Stirling also says the fellowship helped prepare her for the current moment of protests against racial inequity and violence, “for talking to my students, and for reaching out into the world in different ways. How do you communicate with different government groups, how do you develop talking points, how do you bring these ideas together -- these skills are important now as we as a community are dealing with injustice related to race and ethnicity, as well as public health issues. So I think that this fellowship actually provided a skillset that I have been using broadly.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.