Engineering for Social Justice:
A Critical Seminar on the Politics and Possibilities of Engineering
In Winter 2014, I co-designed and taught a course with a good friend and conspirator, Daniel Ullom, at the University of Washington introducing engineers to the social and political context of their work, and how they might work for social justice both at the drawing board and in their daily lives. Our advisor was Professor Susan Bolton, faculty in the School of Environment and Forest Resources, and adjunct faculty in Civil & Environmental Engineering. Daniel and a student in the course, Brian Park, worked together to teach the course again in Spring 2014, and Brian took it upon himself to teach it again in Fall 2014.
I am more than happy to provide the full teaching notes and numerous innovative interactive activities (discussion topics, debates, theatre of the oppressed skits, etc) upon request for educators.
How can engineers work for social justice both at the drawing board and in their daily lives? What is the relationship between engineering, technology and society? By exploring the social and historical context of engineering, we will ask questions like: For whom is engineering done? Who defines the problems we solve? Who wins when a dam is built and who loses when an engineer designs a robot? Whose work is considered engineering? And why are women and people of color still so underrepresented in engineering classrooms?
These questions and discussions of the context of our discipline and the values undergirding our work are notably absent from most skill-focused engineering curricula. This seminar is intended to fill this gap by creating a space for engineering students to reflect on our impact on society and to imagine a new kind of engineering for the common good.
The course is open to all levels and all majors, including non-engineers. Freshmen and sophomores considering engineering but with reservations are strongly encouraged to enroll. There are no prerequisites other than a desire to learn about the subject and participate actively in class. Course assignments will include readings, reflections, and conceptual designs.
Excerpts from Student Reflections:
I am now able to ask the question “why?” and can think deeper to see the implications behind the design of certain products. Even so, I still do not know what I want to do with my career that will bring social justice. That will have to be something I discover along the way. Since I took this class, however, it will be much easier for me to recognize what I really want to change about society.
The readings and discussions have been fantastic at answering some of the questions I had coming in, and it’s exciting in a way that I’ve come out of this class with more questions that I came in with!
When I take a step back and look at how my thoughts have changed over the last ten weeks, it is interesting. When I was doing all the reflections on the artifact I wasn’t really sure how it would all come together or relate in the end. After completing the presentation forum, I felt as if I had built a solid foundation without even realizing what exactly I was doing week after week. The people who were listening to me were actually interested in what I was saying and my ideas even when I wasn’t even sure if I was confident in what I was saying. It was really neat to have those conversations with people who actually cared about what I was saying and who were helping me come up with solutions to the problem. I’ll admit, coming into the presentation forum I was not excited at all and really nervous, but after I got into the groove of things and had my speech down, it was really enjoyable. Honestly I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it as much as I did; it was a pleasant surprise!
Moving on from this class, I think that I will look at engineering through a different lens. How we affect the world is powerful, and we have to make sure that what we are doing or promoting is a good thing…One of the most powerful things that I have learned this week is that if you’re passionate about something or have a new idea, tell people. Having a voice as an engineer is a really powerful thing and it is something more engineers need to have.
The first week’s readings and reflections were what started my shift in thinking. I began to reevaluate the stereotypes of engineers and whether or not I wanted to conform to those standards. During week two I was disgusted with many systems that are in place in the US. Reading about the Silicon Valley as well as my results for the IBT test were wake up calls in the sense that I had not contemplated the amount of privilege that I inherently possess because of my upbringing prior to week two. Throughout the subsequent week, I was again surprised by the readings. I had never before considered machines replacing workers and what the effects of new technology are on the workforce.
Overall, this course has made me a more conscious person in many respects. When I am in social settings these days, I find myself analyzing what other people say in terms of social justice. I pick up on stereotypes more often and am more aware of how male-dominated our culture is. Moving forward from this course, I plan to always wear my “social justice” cap, especially when I become a practicing engineer.
The most amazing thing that happened to me during this course is that I question everything. For example every morning when I sit down in the bus I ask myself which company is building this bus? Or which company is making my clothes, shoes or any products that I purchase. I would like to know more about the product and where they come from? Sometimes I feel that I am doing it too much and I am so annoying but actually I am enjoying it. I used to look through a tunnel and my vision was so narrow and I didn’t want to look at my left or right which is typical for an engineers.
...Similarly, at the beginning of this quarter I did not see myself as someone to make waves or lead others in social change. I thought that this class would focus only upon the engineering part of our identities, looking at small design decisions we could make and working within that little “wiggle room” we have when we are carrying out projects according to the constraints assigned. To me, it seemed reasonable to stay within my comfort zone, and I was hoping to receive a simple toolkit of ways to promote social justice through small actions and decisions at work, and perhaps a few not-too-drastic lifestyle alterations. Instead, you immediately prompted us to question the broad constraints of the engineering world. We looked at huge ideas behind social justice, and engineering ended up being only a piece of the puzzle that we pondered within the larger landscape of political, social, economic, and moral considerations.
Because of this, I learned that it is not only possible for me to lead others in social change, but as an engineer who is particularly aware of these issues, it is imperative that I work to help break down the oppressive systems that are currently in place. Over these ten weeks, you gave a plethora of ways to work toward this goal, whether through small steps like more ecological design decisions and difficult conversations with friends, or more intense steps like alternative lifestyles, participation in larger organizations, and leading protests against unethical companies and institutions.
Even since the beginning of the quarter, I have noticed myself speaking up more when I hear people express untrue stereotypes or oppressive ideas. I am less quick to try to justify wrongful actions, whether they are carried out by others or myself. As time goes on and I continue to learn about the pervasive problems in the world, I hope to better feel out where my niche is, and what type of issues I am most equipped to address. I still don’t have a clear picture of the ultimate goal for society, but I’m beginning to be okay with the idea of working for a better situation, without necessarily starting with a complete vision of what the world will look like as a place of sustainability and social justice.
This class has allowed me to develop a way to think about these ideas and know that I should bring up these topics in discussions and engage other engineers about these social issues. Before, I simply thought the way my education had taught me. I thought my job was only to worry about the technical details and not worry about the social implications. However, this class has showed me through stories and discussions why this needs to change. And now, I feel as if I have the ability and understanding to think and work past just the technical side. Something I thought was very valuable in this course was constantly being asked what an engineer’s role is in a certain situation. I think this really put into perspective how we can first consider and then go about engineering for social justice. Another thing this course helped me realize was that sometimes the problems are not a direct result of the engineering projects, but instead a result of the social systems we create surrounding them. At first, I was really stuck on just thinking about the clearcut outputs from engineering without regarding the systems, guidelines, standards, norms, trends, beliefs, etc. we place or generate as a result of engineering. Just like we can’t solve a full equation without all the individual numbers and variables, we can’t correct social injustice if we do not consider all the factors and influences that are around it.