The Future of “Engineering for Good”

July 22, 2021

Co-Edited By Kelly Bohrer, University of Dayton; Lynn Rollins, Case Western Reserve University; and Sarah Brownell, Rochester Institute of Technology

This is the eighth 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 of the special session and provide a basis for discussion at the conference and beyond.  The co-editors of these blogs and the panelists represent different perspectives within engineering community-based global learning endeavors and community/university partnerships.

Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Rollins/Bohrer/Brownell June 2021; (2) Oakes/Rollins June 2021; (3) Manghnani/Nilov/Brownell June 2021; (4) Reynolds/Bohrer June 2021; (5) Griffin/Brownell July 2021; (6) Crowe/Rollins July 2021; (7) Olson/Bohrer July 2021

In this post we explore the future of socially-focused and community-engaged engineering education and practice–Engineering for Good–with Juan Lucena.  

Juan Lucena is a Professor of Engineering, Design, & Society and Co-director of the Humanitarian Engineering (HE) Program at the Colorado School of Mines. Artisanal miners in Colombia work under significant chemical, geological, and political hazards, and Mines HE engineering students work with them in problem co-definition and co-solution to improve their livelihoods.

Tell us more about how Humanitarian Engineering (HE) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are integrated at Mines.

I don’t know if I explained to you the history of the name Humanitarian Engineering. But the word humanitarian is very problematic in so many ways, because humanitarian aid has been used many times as a tool of foreign policy and is used in many cases very unfairly to starve certain groups of people, while providing food to another so that you can change the politics of a particular place. But what was interesting is that, after many attempts to do marketing and branding research, the word stuck. I wanted to call the program Engineering for Community Development because that’s actually more in line to what we actually do. San Diego is trying to build their humanitarian engineering program into their multi-disciplinary engineering degree that they call “Integrated Engineering”.  Corporate Social Responsibility came a little bit later, when Professor Jessica Smith joined our faculty.  She’s an anthropologist of mining. We had a course on the books called Corporate Social Responsibility that Jessica took over and made it something conceptually robust, substantial and meaningful. That was happening at the same time that alumni of the School of Mines were saying, “How come you guys don’t pay attention to the problems that communities have in the places where natural resources are extracted.”  And they were right.  It’s always easier to go elsewhere. Every time you’re going to have oil, gas, and minerals extracted there is going to be significant conflict among interests at a scale that do not exist in other areas.  The complexity on the ground increases exponentially. So it’s always easier to just go somewhere where there is no mining or oil and gas extraction and build a bridge or build a water treatment plant and everybody is happy. But the minute you land in a place and you start interacting with people who are invested in, involved and impacted by the extraction of natural resources, things get very complicated. That’s the reason why we had not–until that point–looked at places around the world where that was happening. Because we are the Colorado School of Mines and some of our supporting alumni are in the business of natural resources extraction, they said, “Well, if you begin to align the humanitarian engineering program with those places and those issues and problems of those communities that are impacted by extraction, then we will support you.” And so, it has been both incredibly exciting and incredibly scary.

I think I mentioned to you, for example, right now we’re working in a project with communities who are involved in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in Colombia and Peru. I have never seen in my life a more problematic area because that kind of gold mining intersects with drug trafficking, with leftist guerillas, with right-wing paramilitary groups, with the state, and with all kinds of violent groups, not to mention it is incredibly problematic for the environment. It is also incredibly problematic for social justice, especially for women, who are mistreated and discriminated against in that kind of practice.  It involves child labor. You name it.  Pick your favorite human rights violation, and I guarantee you, it will be there. Right now, because of the pandemic we’re doing a lot of that work virtually but we are still engaging with those communities from a distance. 

It was Humanitarian Engineering (HE) coming together with natural resource extraction that put us in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) space. We claim, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that we have probably one of the very few CSR curriculums dedicated to engineers, because most of the CSR curriculums are found in business schools and business programs. And Professor Jessica Smith, the Distinguished Lecturer for the LEES, Engineering Ethics and Community Engagement Divisions at ASEE, is our leader in this area. One of our golden rules in the CSR space is that the values of a company always begin with the engineers, because they are the ones who have to, for example, in the case of an oil pipeline, they have to do this surveying and decide where the pipeline is going to be built, how is it going to be routed what kind of impact is it going to have, how is it going to be built, who are the people who are going to be involved in the building of it, etc, etc, etc. And as we learned painfully from the Dakota pipeline and other projects, when engineers are not mindful of what’s important to the people, they screw up really badly.  That’s the reason we have two minors inside of the humanitarian engineering program so we have one minor in Engineering for Community Development and one in Leadership for Social Responsibility that embodies the spirit of CSR more closely.

How do power and privilege factor into your work with students and communities?

In HE we are very attentive to power and privilege. For example, one of the things that I do in my classes at the very beginning is I do a privilege walk, but not like the ones you find online.  I fully tailor the questions to relate to engineering knowledge and practice. So students not only become aware of their privilege and their power, but they become aware of their power and privilege with respect to the fact that they’re becoming engineers in the United States at the Colorado School of Mines and so on. I take power and privilege very, very seriously. In a chapter recently published with Jessica Smith on socially responsible engineering, we outline the criteria for what it means to be a socially responsible engineer.  The number one criteria is actually to be able to recognize the power differentials between you and others as an engineer and around you as an engineer. You need to become aware of the structures of power, so you know what can and cannot be done in a particular location.  At the same time that you become aware of the structures of power, you should also become aware of your own agency and how to empower the agency of others. Because, being aware of power structures is not enough. It could be paralyzing when you look at all the constraints: multinational financial power, state power, the power of groups, political parties, you name it. It could become paralyzing, so there is a criteria there that also speaks about enacting your own agency as engineer and empowering the agency of others who have less power than you do. The chapter is part of the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Engineering.  

What are the next steps toward advancing more socially-focused and community-engaged engineering practice collectively across universities?

Well it’s interesting that you mentioned that, because with my colleague Maria Stettler-Klein, one of the things we’re going to do is a mapping project. So we want to map the larger world of what we call Engineering for Good, which includes Humanitarian Engineering, Peace Engineering, Global Engineering, Engineering for Community Development, Service Learning Engineering, Engineering for Social Justice, etc.  We are going to be working closely with Engineering for Change (E4C). One thing that needs to be done is the mapping of the space with the understanding that no mapping will ever be complete and fully satisfying to everybody, because this is a very evolving and dynamic field. The other thing that I think needs to happen is, we need more serious and meaningful engagements between engineering faculty and social science faculty. I see in too many examples where engineers and humanities and social science faculty work together, but they stay inside of their disciplinary silos and mindsets. When the engineers attempt to take the social scientists somewhat seriously, they don’t really do a good job.  They tend to trivialize the complexities of the social sciences and vice versa.  I mean the engineers are not the only ones to blame here. I don’t know if you’ve read the work of Erin Cech, particularly the work that she has on the ideologies of engineering. One of them is “depoliticization” which basically creates the set of beliefs and practices that view the world as technical and social. That needs to change. I don’t think this field–I’m going to use the larger umbrella term “Engineering for Good”–can advance conceptually, methodologically and politically too far until we understand and contest the ideology of depoliticization. That’s number two. So first the mapping and second go after the ideology.  Along with the ideology, as you might remember from Donna Riley’s book on Engineering and Social Justice, there are mindsets. Those mindsets are very real and are very present in all of us, in our heads, in our language, in our practices. I think that a serious critical analysis of the mindsets needs to be done. 

If you were to leave it up to me, along with those with those things, I think we need to grow our practices, our curriculum and our pedagogy more inside of the engineering curriculum instead of at the margins, instead of being minors that are optional or student clubs that are optional. We should be teaching all of this at the heart of the curriculum, in the engineering sciences, in the statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermo circuits, all of that.  And it can be done. For example, the University of San Diego teaches their circuits class along these lines.  It’s not enough for the students to understand Ohm’s law. They have to think about the mineral extraction that goes into the building of an electric circuit, so if you’re using tantalite to build capacitors, where’s that tantalite coming from and what is happening in those places? Actually tantalite is one of the nastiest minerals when it comes to extraction because it includes all kinds of human rights violations.

What do you think about the future of “Engineering for Good?”

For us at least here at Mines right now the future looks very bright in terms of our graduate education.  We are very thrilled to see how the new master’s program in Humanitarian Engineering and Science is growing in many ways.  The master program allows us to have alliances with research faculty that was not possible at the undergraduate level, so now that the master’s Program has three tracks:  environmental engineering, geophysics and geological engineering.  Finally the people in geological engineering and geophysics got really excited.  We had to add “Science” to the name Humanitarian Engineering, because the geophysicists view themselves more as scientists and less so as engineers.  They are so excited that they want to carve this new area called “Humanitarian Geosciences”. So some other faculty who are, for example, chief editors in the top geophysics journals and active at the conferences, they’re already organizing special issues on humanitarian geosciences and what is it and how is it different from humanitarian engineering, etc, etc.  

The other thing that became very clear to us is how many young engineers are out there who finished engineering, who are very competent as engineers, but who are very dissatisfied because they don’t see the relevance and the usefulness of their profession for the groups of people that are dear to them, whether these are poor, single mothers or homeless people or the disabled or whatever. They have that craving.  Those are the people that are actually applying to our Program.  It’s great to have them in class.  I have the privilege to teach the intro class to all of them, and it is such a joy. I’m talking with an applicant who is coming from Argentina.  She studied chemical engineering and she has worked for chemical manufacturing companies and she worked in the Ministry of the Environment. She told me in our first interview that in either one of the two places–in the corporate job or in the government job–it’s like nobody cares about the poor communities, and said “I cannot continue practicing engineering in a way that is not attentive to the people, the groups of people that are dear to my heart.”  I think the future for many of us is going to be in growing and expanding opportunities for those–I would be willing to say–thousands of engineers out there who have not been able to find the connection between their profession and social issues that are dear to their hearts.

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