Learning Through Community Engagement, Bridging Engineering Theory and Practice

June 14, 2021

This is the third in a series of posts leading up to a Special Session at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2021 conference on July 27, 2021 entitled At the Crossroads of Community Engagement, Ethics, Liberal Education, and Social Responsibility:  Community engaged engineering education challenges and opportunities in light of COVID-19.  These posts are intended to introduce the panelists and provide a basis for discussion at the conference and beyond. Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Rollins, Bohrer, Brownell/June 2021; (2) Oakes/June 2021.

In this post, we explore the value of community engaged learning from a student perspective.  

Kat Nilov (left) and Sanjana Manghnani are rising Seniors in the undergraduate Chemical Engineering program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  In Spring 2020 both were students in Dr. Stephen Fernandez’s pilot course called “Learning through Community Engagement and Bridging Engineering Theory and Practice.”    

First, tell us a little about the course that you took last spring.

Kat:  The class was nonhierarchical. Every week we had a student running a prompted discussion.  Steve had listed out a bunch of topics that students could pick from at the beginning of the Semester.  (Something that was really awesome was that we called him Steve and not Professor Fernandez!) Every week one student would present and facilitate the discussion, and we would go into breakout rooms.  A lot of the discussion topics were about things like Racism in Engineering or the Environment and Engineering.  Once we talked about the prison industrial complex.  It was very ethics-based, which is very different from most of the classes that we take traditionally. We had readings beforehand and then students who led the discussion would summarize the readings and create discussion prompts.  We would go into break out groups and talk about it.  We had a group of 11 students plus the professor, so it was really nice that we could build a community together.  This class was an elective, so we self-selected to be part of it.  At the end of the semester, we were able to self-select projects with community partners, so it was really personal in that way. 

Sanjana:  For our project we worked with Nuestra Raices, a worker-owned cooperative farm in Holyoke, MA, and the project was to design a cover for their irrigation valves that were freezing and breaking in the winter. The previous winter, the water inside their valves froze, and they had to pay $600 in damage.   We didn’t have the time to build it with them because of COVID, but we had a Zoom meeting with them. We shared our presentation including the exact dimensions and the cost for the materials and gave them instructions on how to go about it. Something else that we did was reflections every week.  You didn’t have to turn them in immediately. You had to read the articles before you came in to discuss and then after, you reflected on what you discussed. Basically Steve gave us the option to submit it privately to him or contribute to a group forum. 

How was the class different from the other engineering classes you take?

Kat: A lot of our other classes are technical skills based, and that’s what all the assignments are about, that’s what all the discussions are about, and that’s what all the problems are about. This class was really unique because we got to talk more freely about the themes. I think one of the most significant things that I remember were the discussions about Racism and Environmental Justice in engineering. It allowed us to really look for the root of the problem. While usually in engineering you’re just given the problem and you’re told to solve it, but here we were able to think about things like, “Where do these problems originate?  What are the socially embedded problems in engineering?”

Sanjana:  Yes, in most classes, we never talk about why something is a problem, we just discuss how to solve the problem.  With Steve’s class it was about, ”Why is this a problem in the first place, or how is engineering, by trying to solve a problem, making it socially worse?”  We’re not always socially conscious of what we’re doing and who it affects, we’re just told to fix this thing and you’ll get paid this money to do it.  I feel like we’re blindly doing it.  But this class was teaching us how to be socially conscious and really think about who it’s going to affect, who are we helping, who we really are not helping, and why are we even doing it.  This semester Kat and I are in a heat and mass transfer class.  We had a presentation on a case where a heat exchanger blew up and caused damage and people were killed.  It was designed to teach a lesson on safety.  Why aren’t we talking about why that plant was in that community in the first place?  Why wasn’t it in a rich suburban white area? That’s something we would have been talking about in Steve’s class.

Kat: We focused on the geographic area directly around us, so we talked a lot about Springfield and how it’s the asthma capital of the US.  This was a topic that really interested me, and I ended up using the knowledge that I learned from Steve’s class to write a paper for my junior writing class about the ethics of building a biomass facility. Springfield is already one of the places with the most air pollution, and they wanted to burn things for energy and that was just going to release more pollution.  So in my paper, I studied the existing factories in Springfield and the way that they use their energy.  My paper focused on one of the factories that used the Connecticut river as their cooling source.  I talked about how that pollution impacted the water around these communities.  It was really a unique opportunity.  All the engineers take the junior writing class, and I remember when I posted my question into the forum, I wrote about environmental racism and engineering and everyone said, “This is such an interesting take on it.”  Everyone else was talking about things like the way that cars can run better.

Sanjana: Yeah or like nanotech or being the next Elon Musk. Very, very technically-based.

Kat:  I wrote about the West Springfield generating station and engineered racism.  I talked about engineering having undesirable implications on marginalized communities from energy sourcing and waste removal strategies.  Creating the tie in the engineering class showed that systemic oppression and engineering are very tied together, because places with money can just pay not to have these facilities built in their space.  I concluded, “To protect Springfield we must mitigate the environmental pressures created from power plants, pipelines, interstates and more, starting with the understanding of plants, like the West Springfield generating station and the impact that it has on the surrounding community.” And I’m sure that I would not have written a paper like this if I didn’t take Steve’s class, because I wouldn’t have thought to look in this direction.

What impact has the class had on your future direction?

Kat: I think that both Sanjana and I have past experiences that naturally push us towards fighting for equality and sustainability. I’ve always been passionate about clean energy, but after taking this class, the pathways are more clear.  We can make sure that whatever companies we work for, that our values line up with them, and if we are in a company that might have questionable values or ethics, we can reject projects or propose different solutions.

Sanjana: Definitely, I think, the class really changed my perspective, specifically on the Chemical Engineering department at UMass and about trying to make a change in how things are run here. For example, we have to take four electives.  Two have to be other engineering classes and two can be non-engineering, but you still have to pick from Math, Chem, Bio-Chem, and Comp Sci or some business classes. How are you going to have students who are more well-rounded or know how to communicate with the community, know how to empathize with people, if all they’re doing is taking technical classes?  Why can’t I take a class on something like–especially with what’s going on now–Asian American History or Black Studies?  For a chemical engineering major, it’s really hard to minor or double major in anything that isn’t STEM related, because you’re adding a year at least and you’re already so stressed. There should be a way to minor in psychology if you want. That could really help with being an engineer and understanding humans.  Having all these ideas and trying to implement change, like talking to faculty and advisors, has been something I’ve been doing because of Steve’s class—implementing the idea that you can change something you don’t like. I’m looking at humanitarian engineering programs at different schools because I don’t want to get a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering if it’s going to be like how it is in undergrad.  I definitely have had a change in perspective and am now wanting to change engineering itself.

Do you have any takeaways from working with the Community partners?

Kat: Working with the community partners taught me that learning is larger than the educational system that we’re in, especially because a lot of the people that we talked to were not people who went to school after high school.  They’re not even people that can speak English very well.  Just being able to have conversations with people and learn from everyone’s experience was eye opening, because it just proves that every opportunity is an opportunity to learn.  It also helped to refocus our perspective from the classes that we’re taking toward actual actions that we can take with the community and having conversations.  

Sanjana: Going along with that, I feel like just because we have this title of engineer doesn’t mean we’re above anyone. We’re not above the community partners we are working with or above any other major.  By working with these communities, it’s really like we’re on the same level, like we’re just learning from each other.  We’re not saving them.  We don’t know more.  We’re just trying to work together.

Kat: While we were having these conversations in class, I tried to bring it back to: Let’s make sure we understand the frame in which we’re having this conversation.  We’re all people who are privileged enough to go to school and to make it this far in the College of Engineering where it is mostly just white cis-gender males. How does that environment affect the learning of everyone else? How does that influence the questions that we’re asking and the problems that we’re solving?  A lot of working with the community partners was about listening.  That’s something that we talked a lot about in our class.  Often we engineers don’t listen well to the actual problem.  We’re just like “Oh, this is the best solution, and this is going to be the solution.” When you take a step back and actually listen and talk to the people that you’re supposed to be helping, then you learn about their community.  Sometimes there’s miscommunication on what you’re trying to solve and that unfolds by having conversation and by building connections with the people around you and the team that you’re working with.  At first it was really difficult even to set up Zoom meetings with partners, because they either didn’t know how to work Zoom or we had some people who came that needed translation. The amount of time and energy that you have to put into a project is bigger than a lot of engineers initially think.  They think, “Oh it’s easy. It’s just some people that need a little bit of help and we’ll figure it out for them.”  But it still has to work when you walk away…

Sanjana:  Working with community partners is what we should be doing; we should be focusing on that! The place that you can make the most impact–because you’re there–is the community that is around you.  Going to another country, unless you’re moving there, you can only be there for so long.  The connection can’t really build, you can’t really have as deep of a relationship.  We weren’t able to visit the partners as much as we wanted to because of COVID, but in normal years if you’re working with someone in your community, you can really build that relationship and actually contribute to projects that could take a year or more to do.  That’s a big takeaway for me.  We’re taught to aim for these big companies and to go help save the world, but now I feel more like I’m going to focus on addressing the issues in the community that I’m living in.

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