Mechanical engineering student draws connections between science, technology, and society in her senior Pathway essay.
Terra Oldham always knew that she was interested in learning about more than just the technical side of engineering. In the process of selecting her Pathway, "Values in Science & Technology," and writing her reflection essay, she discovered the importance of integrating the theories she studied in class with the societies and cultures that she would impact with her projects.
Understanding Social Contexts
It was in one of Oldham's first courses at Santa Clara University, her freshman Critical Thinking & Writing class, that she was first introduced to the idea of understanding science and technology in the context of the society in which they function. Tailored for engineering students, the English course focused on the value of not only understanding the math and science of engineering theories, but translating them to a larger, social context. "The class really challenged us as students to see beyond just the numbers and really learn how to communicate effectively. Engineers sometimes have the reputation for not being able to communicate effectively, and that class illuminated the idea that developing a better sense of communication ties in with the values technology can bring to society."
Case studies read in the class—such as one that suggested the 1986 Challenger crash was partially a result of poor communication between engineering and governmental departments within NASA—emphasized the need to understand social contexts for technology, and provided a basis upon which Oldham pursued her engineering studies for the next four years.
Incorporating Science and Technology Within Society
Oldham's interest in engineering led her to participate in the Solar Decathlon, a national competition that encourages college students design, build, and create a house that runs completely on solar electricity. As part of the "Values in Science & Technology" Pathway, the Solar House Design course that Oldham enrolled in provided her the opportunity to connect her interests in engineering with her desire to relate them more effectively with social needs and values. "An engineering system can have a lot of value," she explains, "but you can make a much bigger difference when you integrate science and technology with social cues and culture. With the Solar Decathlon, we had to create a real, fully-functioning house. The design class was really good at exposing students to all the different facets that go into designing and building an efficient house that people can actually use."
Looking back at her undergraduate career, Oldham points to the Pathway reflection essay as part of the process of both wrapping up her university studies and looking ahead to her post-graduate career. "Writing the essay allowed me to have closure with what I learned at Santa Clara and helped me take what I learned and put it in package I could present – to myself, to my parents, and even to future employers. I think employers like to see the ability to articulate what you've learned in school, and the essay helped me illustrate what I learned in the past four years from a high level."
Terra Oldham currently works as a project engineer at Air Systems in San Jose.