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The (un)emotional engineer: Emotional positioning and scaffolding in teaching and learning about wicked sustainability problems

Research project Engineers play an important role in addressing complex sustainability problems, such as climate change. In engineering education, however, students are not used to working with such ”wicked problems" that do not have one single solution. Therefore, students often experience strong emotions, e.g. frustration and uncertainty. The project explores the role of emotions in engineering education on wicked problems and develop strategies for providing emotional support for learning to address them.

The project is financed by the Swedish Research Counsil.

Head of project

Johanna Lönngren
Associate professor, other position

Project overview

Project period:

2021-01-01 2024-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Science and Mathematics Education

Research area

Educational sciences

External funding

Swedish Research Council

Project description

Engineers play a crucial role in solving complex sustainability problems such as climate change, resource scarcity, and gender inequality. These problems are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty, ambiguity, and conflicts of interest and are therefore often called “wicked problems”.

Unfortunately, most contemporary engineering education does not adequately prepare students to address wicked problems and thus to assume professional responsibility for the societal and environmental impacts of technological development. Emotions play a vital role in engineering education that aims to prepare students to address wicked problems and in ethically responsible engineering work. At the same time, engineering education and practice are often described as purely rational activities and there is very little research on emotions in engineering education.

The proposed project aims to address this gap by exploring two important processes in teaching and learning about wicked problems in engineering education. Firstly, emotional positioning, which refers to the construction and negotiation of subject positions in and through emotion(al) discourse. Secondly, emotional scaffolding, which refers to pedagogical support that teachers can provide to influence students’ emotions in order to improve learning.

The project will answer three research questions:

  • How do students construct and negotiate emotional subject positions in group discussions about wicked problems?
  • How do teachers construct and negotiate emotional subject positions in discussions about emotional scaffolding?
  • In what ways can students’ emotional positioning shift in and through different forms of emotional scaffolding?

Through analysis of video-data from students’ small-group discussions about wicked problems and focus group meetings with teachers, the project will develop important knowledge about how emotional scaffolding can be used to improve teaching and learning about wicked problems.

Thus, the project will also contribute to better preparing future engineers for solving the complex sustainability challenges outlined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UNGA, 2015).

External funding

Latest update: 2021-02-16