Community-based global learning in engineering education: Engagement, ethics, and social responsibility

June 1, 2021

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

Last summer, in response to the changing landscape on university campuses due to COVID-19, the Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Engineering Action reached out to our colleagues who likewise partner with communities on student design projects aimed at serving vulnerable populations. Since personal connection and travel is important to much of our work, the current pandemic has made our mission even more challenging. And COVID-19 was just the beginning of the many issues that would come into sharper focus in 2020! Last August as we gathered over Zoom with several colleagues, we sought to learn how other organizations are responding and to discuss best ways to ethically and effectively do this work in light of the multitude of challenges.  Our intention was to catalog best practices, report on issues and identify opportunities for collaboration.   What resulted was a lively discussion that left the group wanting to reach a larger audience.  Hence the idea of creating a special session for the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2021 conference was born.

Our special session: At the Crossroads of Community Engagement, Ethics, Liberal Education, and Social Responsibility:  Community engaged engineering education challenges and opportunities in light of COVID-19, aims to widely share these conversations, catalyze more connections, shine a light on historical injustices and inequities, and consider ways to advance the multi-faceted field of community engagement in engineering education.    

We have gathered a panel of experts (engineering faculty, engaged scholars, community engagement professionals, community leaders, and engineering students) to reflect critically and share how organizations and institutions are:

  1. Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic and other global challenges. 
  2. Developing new community engaged learning best practices for long-term societal impact.
  3. Creating ethical and effective partnership practices.
  4. Examining and responding to past injustices caused by or related to the field of engineering and/or community/university engagement.
  5. Forming future engineers with a mindset for equity, inclusion, and collaboration and competent in human/equity-centered design and ethical, sociotechnical solutions.
  6. Drawing from other disciplines and ways of knowing to better our engagement work and our engineering education for ethical engagement.
  7. Repurposing innovative adaptations used during COVID times to expand and deepen the community engagement field.

Over the next seven weeks, we would like to introduce you to our panelists and moderators as they share their thoughts on several topics.  

  • Mira Olson – Associate Professor in the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department and Director of Technical Extension for the Peace Engineering Program, Drexel University
  • Tunya Griffin – Associate Director of University Community Partnerships (UCP),  Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
  • Nora Pillard Reynolds – Director of the Community-based Global Learning Collaborative; Fellow for Ethical Global Learning at Haverford College
  • William (Bill) Oakes – 150th Anniversary Professor, Director of the EPICS Program, Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University
  • Juan Lucena – Professor, Engineering, Design, & Society, Co-director, Humanitarian Engineering, Colorado School of Mines
  • Waleska Crowe – Deputy Director of the Guatemala Office for EWB USA
  • Kelly Bohrer – Director of Community Relations for University of Dayton’s School of Engineering, Acting Director of the University of Dayton’s ETHOS Center
  • Sarah Brownell – Senior Lecturer in Engineering Leadership Design Development and Manufacturing, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Kate Gleason College of Engineering (KGCOE); Director of the RIT Grand Challenges Scholars Program
  • Lynn Ameen Rollins – Program Director for the Center for Engineering Action at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU); Instructor in the Case School of Engineering
  • Kat Nilov – Engineering student, University of Massachusetts
  • Sanjana Manghnani – Engineering student, University of Massachusetts

Each week we will post a new question or two with a panelist’s response.  Thank you for joining us in this conversation!  We hope you can also join us for the special session conversation and paper presentations at the ASEE conference in July.  

This week we begin with the questions:

How has experience during the COVID-19 Pandemic changed what our field will do in the future? 

William Oakes, Director of the EPICS Program, Purdue University 

Coming out of COVID, we’ve shown that we can put a lot of things online – we’ve known that for a while actually. The standard lecture you can do online.  So the pandemic left us with the question: why do you come to campus?  The reason you’re going to come to campus is for the experiences – and this is where I think, at the core, we have a huge opportunity in community engaged learning.  At my own university they’re talking about: “What does the residential campus look like and what is the opportunity for us to emphasize these high impact pedagogies that aren’t for an online environment?” Community engaged learning is one of those high impact pedagogies. And so we can position ourselves to say, here are ways where students can learn more effectively. I believe that’s a huge opportunity. 

What I’ve seen in our work for a long time is that you can get away from one-semester projects that are kind of academic and get into real projects with real people. And that’s harder to replicate online. We can create places in the curriculum for meaningful experiences that can meet learning outcomes. I think it’s important we look at the core disciplinary pieces so that experiential connection gets students to learn the core things they need for their discipline, including engineering, as well as these other things that are going to help them to be better citizens and future leaders. So when you look at community engaged learning I think it’s creating spaces where we can play a more prominent and, I believe, a more central role. That is, as these high impact pedagogies become more important in the residential experiences, we have the potential to place community engaged learning in a prominent and more pervasive role to impact a lot of students. 

But we’ve also got to make sure that as we’re talking to our different stakeholders to say, here’s how we’re educating our students. Some people in our networks pride themselves for being outside the mainstream.  I think if you look at our field, you’ll see there’s an opportunity to move mainstream without compromising, but with understanding that every student that graduates has the opportunity for meaningful engagement in our world. As students go to work at General Motors or Ford or Intel, we know, if we did our job right, that these companies are not going to be the same as they were before the students began there.  So what can we do that’s going to equip students to be successful in their careers as well as people and as citizens? The students may go on different paths, but the opportunity to touch more is what actually excites me.  We could move the center of mass in engineering.  When people look at it, they recognize it’s to do good.  It gets me really excited and makes me think that we could actually move the system.

Juan Lucena, Professor, Engineering, Design, & Society; Co-director, Humanitarian Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

I will give you one example. I’m in this National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that we have with artisanal and small-scale miners. We were going to travel to Colombia in summer of 2020 and we couldn’t.  We ended up working with the miners via Zoom and Whatsapp. The proposal to NSF promises the delivery of mining-related solutions that are going to make the practice more environmentally sustainable and more socially just.  So we went into that engagement with those communities thinking, “Oh, we can still work with them virtually on mining related issues.” To our surprise, the miners that we ended up engaging did not want to have anything to do with mining.  Because the pandemic was in front of the entire world, including them, they said, “Look, right now, our main priorities are personal protection equipment and food security.  We’re not going to work on mining related issues with you. We want to learn how to make hand sanitizer. We want to learn how to make face masks. We want to learn how to do home gardens that we can hang in the walls of our houses so we can grow food, because all the supply chains for food distribution have been disrupted.” It was beautiful because, even though we came with the power and prestige of a University from the United States–one of the most important universities in mining in the world–and with a seal of approval of an NSF grant, it was the miners that ended up defining the problems they wanted to work on. That was very revealing to the students and actually to some of the faculty.  They worried, “We promised the NSF mining-related problems!” I said, “Well sorry, this is what they want, this is what we’re going to do.” So we ended up spending the whole field summer session building face masks and teaching them how to make hand sanitizer. It was awesome.  The problem definition flipped. We will continue to flip the relations of power more, so this summer we’re going to do another virtual session. It’s going to be the miners who are the ones that ask the students what to design. Then they’re going to be the judges on the prototyping phase of that field session. We’re also going to go to Central Colorado to compare some of the practices and the impacts of gold mining from what is happening in the United States to what is happening in Colombia.

How do you maintain connection when not on the ground?

Waleska Crowe, Deputy Director of the Guatemala Office, EWB USA

I have a simple answer for that, it’s just two points. First, I have noticed that it’s important to make sure that your project keeps moving. Even if it’s remotely, you can continue to work. By doing that, you are going to be communicating with the community. And by making progress, you are going to stay connected. I know it’s not the same as travel, but still the project moves and that’s the strongest message we can send to the communities-  that we are still together and connected. Second, I know with communities it’s difficult to use the Internet but perhaps there is a way that we can use the phone. At least once a month telephone calls, you know the old way. There are some cards that you could get to not spend so much of your minutes.

Nora Reynolds, Fellow for Ethical Global Learning at Haverford College; Director, Community-based Global Learning Collaborative

Having to be remote in some ways removes the ways in which things can happen unethically in our work.  It removes the really big red flags – untrained students providing medical care or testing a prototype in a healthcare setting abroad without proper ethical review – they just can’t happen. 

It might be forcing us to play roles that we don’t usually want to play, but are very important roles for an organization or partner. For example, data management – not sexy, but many engineering students are qualified to do it and can do so remotely.  It might not be some wild, adventurous story, but does remote collaboration challenge us to play roles we would have opted out of otherwise? Are university faculty and students more likely to fill gaps that we wouldn’t normally do because it just wouldn’t fit into our two week trip to Nicaragua?  Could doing things like data cleaning remotely force us to think differently about what roles we might play in university/community partnerships?  

In terms of beginning new partnerships during times like the pandemic, I think it is more complicated than working with an existing partnership.   Fundamental to our work is relationships – people, trust – it’s hard to build relationships without some of this proximity and shared experiences.  This is true even despite the fact that frequency of communication might be higher while remote because of technology.  

Virtual spaces can bring another opportunity that might not happen otherwise – the opportunity for our students to interact with peers from the other community (example – conversation buddies).  In many ways, this is more in alignment with who the students should be building relationships with anyway – with their peers instead of a first year engineering student talking to the director of water and sanitation for the municipality in another country.  

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