Visscher, K. (2020): Theatrical Technology Assessment: A Role-play Simulation for Bridging the Gap between Technology and Society in Interdisciplinary Engineering Education. Science, Technology & Policy Studies - STePS Working Paper Series 01/20

Grand societal challenges ask for the education of engineers who can develop new technologies for and with society. To make a difference, engineers do not only need to learn about technology, but also about how they can productively incorporate stakeholders’ viewpoints and societal dynamics in their design processes. In practice, it proves difficult for engineering students to learn how to bring technology and society together. Especially when it concerns newly emerging technologies, which bear great promises but are also characterized by much uncertainty and ambiguity, it is often hard for students to imagine lines of action that go beyond linear implementation plans that hubristically push new technologies through society. This working paper presents a novel educational method – Theatrical Technology Assessment (TTA) – which combines insights from Constructive Technology Assessment and improvisational theatre in a role-play simulation that enables engineering students to explore the socio-technical dynamics around emerging technologies, and to obtain insights about these dynamics and the role of different stakeholders, which they can incorporate in their designs and innovation processes.

We developed and tested this method in a pilot with students of an honours bachelor programme in Technology and Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Twente, in the context of a semester project on emerging energy technologies. Students were involved as players of the role-play simulation, but also as co-designers and role-instructors. In the design of the role-play simulation, we paid special attention to the selection and internalization of the roles, to the tasks and roles of the teachers as moderators and process supervisors, to the involvement of students, to the balancing of fact and fiction, and to the use of conceptual frames to make sense of the emerging dynamics.

This pilot study corroborates that a role-play simulation can be a powerful means for students to learn about the complexity of societal interactions around emerging technologies. The results indicate that students learn about differences in stakeholder perspectives to new technologies and ways to anticipate or transcend these, about patterns in socio-technical dynamics, and in some cases about their own identity as an engineer. These insights are relevant for students’ understanding of socio-technical dynamics, but also for their development into engineers who can deal with complex and uncertain interdisciplinary challenges.