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Gunckel & Tolbert, 2018; Costanza-Chock, 2019


Engineering design is more than just developing technical solutions to problems. It also involves examining the social, historical, and political contexts of design problems & solutions. With Design Talks, teachers can help students develop a perspective of care (Gunckel & Tolbert, 2018) in engineering design.

Power & Inequality

Design Talks can create opportunities to prioritize empathy and social concern in students’ engineering learning. Yet we have to be careful to reflect on who often does not receive empathy in our society and what concerns are typically prioritized. Rather than just focusing on the impact of designs on anticipated users, in Design Talks students can reflect on the ways engineering design can address--or exacerbate--social, economic, and environmental injustice. In different genres of Talks, students might consider questions like: Whose concerns are prioritized in how we frame this problem? How have some communities historically benefited (and others marginalized) from prior designs?


In the “Considering Potential Impacts of a Dam” Classroom Video Example, you can see how students identify the power differential between a community of indigenous people and an agricultural community when it comes to making a decision about a technology that is likely to cause environmental injustice.

Potential for Harm

Even if a design solution succeeds in solving a particular problem, it can cause harm by creating new problems, being misused in different contexts, or inflicting economic, emotional, or ecological damage. In Design Talks, students can consider unintended consequences of their design solutions, recognizing that having good intentions is not enough, but what matters most is the impact of their solutions. In different genres, they might ask: Who might be harmed by this design problem? How might this design solution be misused in ways that could hurt others? Which of these designs might reduce harm to communities that have been impacted the most?


The “Problem-Scoping Sea Turtle Egg Rescue” Classroom Video Example shows how a Design Talk can create an opportunity for students to identify the potential harm that may stem from the misuse of a design solution.


Engineering designs have played an outsized role in producing the ecological and climate crises we face today. Moving forward, designers need to prioritize restoration and connection to earth. In Design Talks, students can consider how their designs might work towards a more sustainable world. In different genres of Design Talks, they might consider: What kinds of materials would be sustainable for our designs? How might this design solution impact the local environment? Does a solution require the development of a product or might a shift in practices and policies address the problem?

Boaler, 2008;

Warren & Rosebery, 2011;

Wright, 2017


Because engineering design involves multiple ways of thinking about problems, it can make space to value different students' assets for learning, particularly those strengths that are not often recognized in the classroom.  With Design Talks, teachers can foster inclusion in engineering.

Challenging Academic Status & Hierarchy

Given the diverse skill sets needed for engineering design, engineering lessons can offer students different opportunities to shine than what is typically available in schooling. Teachers can anticipate how the genres of Design Talks might make visible different student strengths, such as analyzing form and function of a design, listening and connecting to each other’s contributions, or envisioning how a design might be used in real life. In addition to making space for all students to be able to contribute, teachers can assign value to students’ contributions, particularly to recognize students who have not been afforded high status in other academic areas. 

To see a teacher signaling the value of multiple students’ contributions in a Design Talk about how to improve an engineering design solution, view the “Analyzing Wind Turbine Performance” Classroom Video Example.

Recognizing Ways of Knowing in Engineering

Our different experiences and perspectives shape what we know and how we know in engineering design. What might seem like an ideal design solution to one designer might not make sense at all to another. Therefore, rather than assuming that there is a single “correct” way to frame a problem or develop a solution, engineering lessons offer opportunities to reflect on how there are multiple ways of knowing in engineering. Through different genres of Design Talks, teachers can create opportunities for students to consider how they know what they know, what might be limitations in their knowledge, and what experiences and perspectives are not often valued in design. 

In the “Synthesizing Findings from Stomp Rocket Launches” Classroom Video Example, you can see how instructors invite students to use their sensory experiences -- feelings of physically interacting with different design solutions -- as a source of knowledge for their engineering design thinking.

Making Space for Different Communication Strategies

Whole-class conversations necessarily privilege talk as a form of communication. In Design Talks, however, teachers can make space for students to draw on other ways of sharing their ideas, such as using their drawings or plans, physical design prototypes, or gestures. Teachers can also use large displays for students to share their thinking, such as creating a display to categorize different design solutions in Design Synthesis Talks or posting sticky notes to brainstorm solutions in Idea Generation Talks.

The “Brainstorming Playground Solutions” Classroom Video Example illustrates how Design Talks can provide space for students to communicate their ideas with their full repertoires of communication strategies, including gesture and body language.

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