The social impact of engineered products is sometimes overlooked. A groundbreaking paper examining and bringing attention to the topic of social impact by Gabrielle Johnson and Marin Fisher, two undergraduate mechanical engineering students, received the best paper award at the 2021 DFMLC (Design for Life Manufacturing and Life Cycle) Conference.
The idea for the paper started two years ago as Johnson’s research meeting presentation analyzing the link between the Social Impact Categories (SIC) and the United Nations (UN) development goals. These goals were created by the UN to achieve a sustainable economy and world by 2030.
Johnson's professor encouraged her to turn that PowerPoint presentation into a white paper. Roughly a year later, the team working on this concept grew to include senior Marin Fisher, with Dr. Mattson and Dr. Salmon advising. In the span of just a few months it became the competition worthy paper they submitted.
The paper, officially titled “Product Development Using Perceived Correlations Between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Social Impact Categories,” earned the best paper in the ASME design for life manufacturing category, a plaque and a cash prize.
Johnson also had the opportunity to present the paper at the conference in August, which was virtual this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. With five minutes to present the paper to a group of 40 people, and another five to answer questions live.
“I got the email and sent it to [Johnson] and said ‘Is this for real?’ I was just so honored and so grateful,” Fisher said. “It was a huge confidence boost to know that what we’re pursuing is something people actually care about, and that’s a big thing in research because you can try to figure something out but it might not be needed or what the engineering community is wanting.”
The process included linking the 11 Social Impact Categories and the 17 UN development goals, then categorizing them as 19 social economic environmental (SEE) aspects. Fisher, a senior from Chicago, focused on the writing and survey distribution, and Johnson on creating the figures and video presented with the paper.
“Easily 100 hours were dropped into this, probably more,” Johnson said. Fisher added that it took an average of 10 hours every week for the duration of the project.
Both Johnson and Fisher said they learned so much about the importance of communication, the scientific method, and feedback in this process. They said the most important lesson, however, was that they are capable of being published engineers, even as undergraduates.
“I want to go to grad school, I want to be a professor, but I’d never published a paper; I thought that was mostly just a graduate thing,” Fisher said. “It showed that we can be engineers.”
Johnson said that one of the hardest parts of the process was the constant change.
“Don’t get attached to things that you make. You want to check early and check often about things that you create,” Johnson said. “Don’t sit there and stew and turn your wheels on your own; get a couple things down, then go talk to somebody so they can call you back from going off into your own world.”
The pair are working to get it published as a technical brief in The Journal of Mechanical Design. Since the paper was focused on social categories, the team is moving into research on the economic and environmental categories and how they all work together. The two seniors are also working on applying to graduate school.
“I feel like when people think of engineering papers they think of just long equations and they can be confusing, and there's a lot of literature referenced that's hard to read,” Fisher said. “This one was more about how what you’re doing as an engineer affects the whole world...I think that that’s kind of pushing me forward in what I want to do in my graduate studies — really focusing more on how engineering design affects people and how it affects the community.”