Kristen Nixon

The Promise of Tech and Changemaking

I decided to study engineering in college during my senior year of high school, when I learned that engineering was simply the application of math and science to real world problems, not just driving trains and constructing buildings.

Fast forward three years – I was a junior in college, disillusioned with engineering and resenting my courses.  While we often learned about engineering theory and derivation of equations, application to real world issues I cared about like green energy, GMOs, nontoxic materials, medicine, and ethical dilemmas were rare.  Instead of learning to build impactful things to solve problems, I was taking exams on increasingly complicated math that did not seem related to the kind of engineering I wanted to do.  By the end of my junior year, I wanted nothing to do with engineering after college, opting instead to pursue a career in social impact (which seemed to be incompatible with the engineering I had experienced).

This summer, I landed on a great opportunity to work with Ashoka U on Tech and Changemaking.  I was intrigued to explore how faculty in disciplines such as engineering, data science, IT, and AI could proactively embed skills related to social innovation and changemaking directly in their classrooms.  Over the course of this summer, I talked to professors, students, university administrators, and leading entrepreneurs and found myself reconnecting with why I picked a STEM major and becoming thrilled, once again, with its promise.

There is no doubt that in today’s world of rapid technological change, science and tech fields are the driving forces behind some of the most consequential phenomena in society:  an unprecedented level of connection via smartphones, automation, sustainability efforts, artificial intelligence, advances in medicine thanks to biological engineering, etc.  The traditional thinking in these fields is that an engineer’s job is to build and innovate, not to explicitly or deeply consider the impact of the product.

However, we must also consider the 2nd and 3rd order impacts of these innovations:  addictive technology, online communities which enable extreme polarization and bullying, monetization of personal data, industrial activities which pollute the earth and local communities, and consumer products made of toxic substances. The current norm in how we are teaching STEM students is creating a society full of brilliant scientific minds who are innovating, but without intention behind the human effects of their innovation.

This thinking allows technology to continue to magnify the dark sides of human nature—hatred, bigotry, apathy, and exploitation. Even Mark Zuckerberg, when considering the consequences of Facebook’s failure to be cognizant of social ramifications of their platform, recognized that, “It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm… We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake.”

But, there is a better alternative. The majority of scientists and engineers pursue these fields in order to leave a positive impact on society, but this good intention has been lost in translation.  But I believe that this good intention is still there, ready to be revived.  I envision a world in which scientists and engineers are grounded in the non-technical impacts of their work and determined to apply themselves towards social good. A world in which industry coexists with flourishing of the natural world and devices are designed to improve quality of life, not simply to maximize the amount of time users spend on the device.  Not only will scientists and engineers be well versed in ethics, they will put social good at the core of their work and take pride in doing so—they will embody changemaking.

So, what can and should be done?

Mainstream college education often focuses on training scientists, engineers, and coders who are technically proficient.  This makes perfect sense; we need our scientists to be experts in their discipline, and our engineers to have a deep understanding of the math behind their design.  However, the focus only on technical proficiency has proven to be shortsighted. Training in skills like ethics, design, innovation, and effective communication, arguably subjects which are more directly relevant to the daily life of a scientist or engineer, tends to be an afterthought (if they are considered at all).  Additionally, the weed-out culture of STEM fields and lack of frequent applications to the real world present serious obstacles to diversity and equity in the field.

Ashoka U believes that changemaking – the intentional act of contributing to the solution of societal or environmental problems – is a foundational skill that should be embedded across all disciplines. Ashoka U aims to create a world where all students, regardless of their chosen major or career path, are equipped with the mindsets and skillsets for driving change.

More specifically, in 2019 Ashoka U launched a special track focused on Tech and Changemaking at the most recent Ashoka U Exchange.  This Track was a deliberate effort to engage with tech disciplines and showcase best practices at the nexus of tech and changemaking.  During my summer internship, I built on this work by curating valuable resources, recommending content for the 2020 Exchange, launching an email listserv, and sharing what I’ve learned with blog posts. Over the course of the summer I’ve seen great momentum for change and evidence of its effectiveness—innovative universities and visionary educators are succeeding in revamping STEM education. This progress makes me excited to return to school for my final year as an engineering major.

I chose STEM because I believed that a degree would give me the training to go on to discover and design things that positively impact people and society, and I know I’m far from alone in this motivation.  My work this summer has convinced me that cultural change in STEM education, with changemaking at the center, can be a powerful part of the solution. We need university experiences that ignite intrinsic motivation in students, drive them to pursue projects that are connected to real world issues, and educate the entire person with practical skills, not just math/science knowledge.

If you want to be a part of this change, join our Tech and Changemaking Google Group to access resources, opportunities, and connect with other educators in this space. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing additional blog posts with curated resources including books, organizations, trainings, conferences, funders, etc. If there is anything you would like to see included, email me at with a short description of why the resource(s) should be included.

Let’s position tech to be the solution, not a part of the problem.

You can read all of Kristen’s blog posts here:

Kristen Nixon is a rising senior at Johns Hopkins University where she is studying engineering. She served as an Ashoka U summer intern from June – August 2019.