Examining Societal Impact of Community/University Engagement Endeavors for Engineering Education

July 15, 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 seventh 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/June 2021; (3) Manghnani, Nilov/June 2021; (4) Bohrer, Rollins, Brownell/June 2021; (5)Grffin/Brownell/July 2021; (6) Crowe, Rollins/July 2021

In this post, we explore more tools for ethical engagement. We explore this with Dr. Mira Olson.

Dr. Mira Olson is an Associate Professor in the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department at Drexel University.  She holds a B.S in Mechanical Engineering and B.A. in Environmental Sciences and Engineering from Rice University, and an M.E. and Ph.D. in Civil (Environmental) Engineering from the University of Virginia.  The broad focus of her research is on protecting source water quality, with current interests in transboundary water management and community-based research design. Dr. Olson is an editor of the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice and Peace and has served as faculty fellow in Drexel’s Office of University and Community Partnerships. She is a co-founder and Director of the newly established Peace Engineering program at Drexel. 

What do you think should be in the toolbox for ethical engagement when universities are partnering with communities?

I don’t think of one specific “thing” in the ethical engagement toolbox.  It’s more of a process of coming to understand what everyone’s expectations are in the partnership and how to work together.  The process of building trust and setting up pillars of commitment is important and is the first thing we do (at Drexel) when we work with a community partner.  This includes sharing what our understanding of the partnership is, what we expect to get out of working together, what are we able to give each other (and what’s beyond the scope of what we’re able to do), what feedback we want and are able to give, how we want to communicate, and even how we approach each other.  To capture these conversations, we collaboratively create a diagram of core pillars for partnership.   

This is a great way to build strong community/university partnerships.  What are some of the things universities should consider in the process of doing this?

As far as ethical engagement goes and the work we do together (community and university), it’s important to understand what the commitment looks like for both parties. As university faculty and staff, it’s part of our job to do research and deliver projects and work to advance engineering education, but it is often above and beyond the job responsibilities of our community partners to work with us, even if the partnership does advance some of their priorities.  So, how do we engage with partners in ways that are equitable and respectful, and what can universities do to support these partnerships?  IRB’s don’t necessarily get us there.  IRB’s get to protection of data, which I think is important, but also important is the equity of how we engage – even small things like figuring out how much time is reasonable and appropriate for community partners to commit to a project, and at what benefit. I think it’s also important for universities to commit to the partnerships, rather than to individual projects, which sometimes goes against the way we’re used to working. But community priorities can change, often in response to immediate challenges, and a strong university partner ought to be able to adapt in support of these changing priorities. 

What are some ways your university has addressed these issues?

Drexel is committed to civic engagement in our local community, and serves as an anchor institution in West Philadelphia. Our Office of University and Community Partnerships works very hard to make sure that at the most basic level we’re a positive force in the community. As a faculty fellow in that office, I’ve tried to figure out how that aligns with the academic programs and research we do as well. West Philadelphia is home to so many research universities – we’ve worked on setting up a community research board that has an actual say in what projects happen in the community.  So many times we hear about university researchers who have come and gone while communities still wait on the results and action in light of the surveys. Or of similar projects led by different teams unaware of the each others’ work. So it’s about transferring ownership of the agenda. 

A research board can get into basic stuff, like how we should meet – what time of day, where, and through what medium. There are so many things we assume we know how to do. But also more complicated things like how to give legitimate voice to communities on how and what projects get done in their neighborhoods, and how we can compensate community partners for their collaboration in a way that values their time and input as equal research partners. It’s been an extremely complicated process, but we do now have a mechanism for paying community research partners, much like a fellowship. It’s not simple, but it gets past the token gift card.

What are other challenging aspects for ethical engagement?

I still think one of the hardest things is figuring out where we’re aligned and when and where university partnerships add value. Sometimes they don’t. There are some things that community organizations can do extremely well on their own and there are some instances in which it’s beneficial to have university support – in the form of resources, networks and the boundless enthusiasm, energy and creativity that students can bring.  But strong partnerships include pairing what’s important to people and their communities with the people and resources that can help bring action to the ideas. It’s not about faculty and staff sitting in their offices dreaming up ways in which they can improve the communities around them, or people sitting in their homes wondering how to get around structural issues and conditions.  Instead it is a coming together, creating a portfolio of projects and initiatives that can be worked on together, and figuring out the best way to advance these ideas given the combined resources available to both the university and the community partner. 

How do we involve students in this important piece of ethical engagement?

We want students to be good partners and advocates, and to understand when and where they (or by extension, engineering) can be useful. I think it’s important that we infuse this critical reflection into the curriculum and integrate ethical engagement into all aspects of engineering education so that it’s considered and valued alongside technical content. It doesn’t help when these experiences are disparate, like a single isolated class on ethics, or learning skills one term but not applying them in context until the next. It would be great to have students learning how to create strong partnerships as they are honing their engineering skills and knowledge.  Then they can see the value of the technical content they’re learning in class as it relates to the changes they want to see in society. This is already happening to some extent, but it may be time for a new balance in what and how we are teaching.  Even in the classroom I try to model a more equitable system for engagement. I try to encourage students to value the experiences that every person in the classroom brings so that we can break down our ideas of who is “expert” and who holds the knowledge and power.  In some sense it’s a lot easier to do this when working with community partners because there is an understanding that we are all learning from each other and building ideas together.

You have been a key faculty member in the development of the Master’s in Peace Engineering program at Drexel.  I bet you have had to consider what could be next for graduates of this program. 

Absolutely. The program was designed to prepare engineers to work effectively in regions of conflict, but we realize now that working with community partners and understanding conflict dynamics makes them better engineers in so many other contexts. Peacebuilding, cross-cultural communication and humility is valued in engineers no matter where they are, even in traditional engineering workplaces.  My hope is not only that our students bring peace engineering into existing engineering practice, but also that they find themselves working in areas or on complex societal issues that they might not have considered before as engineers, like public policy, or humanitarian issues, or urban gun violence, for example.  They are finding roles for themselves advancing the change in society they want to see by bringing who they are as analytical and systems thinkers and by using the engineering design mindset. I think they’re finally able to align the work they do as engineers with the issues that motivate them. Our graduates are also looking for smaller firms and organizations and even start-ups that align with their values, companies that are developing technology for good; instead of large firms where they don’t feel they know the end plan for what they are working on. Or they’re demanding to know the implications of these large projects and who benefits from them. Engineering students who gain experience with ethical engagement, participatory research, peace, social justice and human rights are better able to build professional pathways in which they can merge being an engineer with working on the social problems they are passionate about. 

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