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

June 25, 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 fourth 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.

In this post, we explore what the engineering community/university engagement field means by “societal impact” with Dr. Nora Pillard Reynolds.  

Kelly Bohrer: Let’s start broad – what do we, in the field of community/university engagement and engineering education, mean by “societal impact?”

Nora Pillard ReynoldsSocietal impact has been a term that I have had to unpack more recently, particularly in working across different sectors and disciplines.  My perspective comes from working with community-based global learning and global service-learning frameworks, and thinking about community outcomes and impact is a real part of the conversation in these fields.  What I have come to realize, as I worked across disciplines, is that the terms community “outcomes” and “impact” are interpreted in ways that are different than what we really mean by these terms (specifically related to engineering education our forthcoming article in Advances in Engineering Education digs into this question – Reynolds, MacCarty, Sharp, & Hartman). Most commonly people have been using “community impact” and interpreting this impact through a charity model of volunteering, helping, and giving (how did we help them, what did we give to them, how many hours did we volunteer).  Shifting to the terminology of “societal impact” does two things, 1) clarifies what impacts we are looking towards, such as the broader societal impacts of health, education, and wellbeing; and 2) broadens the scope of engagement.  What I mean by this second part is that by saying “community impact” (in lieu of societal) we are defining community in a relational way based on what it is not.  The University is not part of the impact because “community” is outside of the university – it is the place where the university is helping.  This is even despite members of the university potentially being interspersed with “the community” based on place.   Societal impact, on the other hand, incorporates these social impacts, like health, that would be for all of us – university, “community”, students, civic groups, etc.  It forces the social part of that term. 

KB: Our universities are better now, perhaps out of the necessity for greater accountability, at using benchmarks and indicators to measure their contributions to communities.  But most of this seems to be measuring contributions based in terms of philanthropy, economics (e.g. this many volunteer hours means this much money), projects (e.g. completed a community garden), and infrastructure for communities, and seems to be short-term based.  There seems to be less effort or means to measure longer-term impacts.  Can you say a bit more about this coming from your experience in program evaluation for universities and community organizations?

NPR: For me, I give a lot of thought on impacts coming from my experience of doing program evaluations.   When we think about program evaluation we are thinking about logic models – outputs, outcomes, and impacts.  In the fields of community engagement, community-based global learning, and engineering education, we so often say impacts when we are actually talking about outputs, or maybe outcomes, but usually just outputs.  So we will say we have achieved community “impacts”, but we are talking about a prototype or a construction of a latrine, which are outputs, not impacts.  Outputs are direct and often tangible results of activities that we hope will lead to outcomes in 3 to 5 years, and we hope that will lead to impacts in 7 to 10 years.  Too often we conflate the terms and report outputs or outcomes as impacts, when they really are not.  And to me what is so powerful about the term impacts, defined through the field of program evaluation as 7 to 10 years, is that it necessarily calls on us to engage in long term planning and partnerships – beyond a specific technical deliverable, beyond a semester or a course or even an academic year.

KB: What can we learn from a focus on societal impacts over “community impacts” (when we really mean outputs) when it comes to working with international communities on technical projects, and doing so with students?

NPR: Very few problems are going to be solved with a technical solution.  Certainly technology can be part of solving and engaging with those problems, but if it is applied in isolation of other understandings (political will, sociocultural dynamics, socioeconomic systems, etc.), it will always be piecemeal or a short-term fix as opposed to getting at the root causes of these complex problems.  If we want to work towards true impact and for the long-term, we must acknowledge that technical aspects are just one part of the work in solving the problem and must be accompanied by other considerations.   Interestingly, when I ask community partners what they want engineering students to learn, they say they want them to learn what they don’t know (meaning – not engineering) (see Reynolds, 2021).  They want them to know about cultural humility and the role the United States has played in their country (in the case of this study, Nicaragua).  This takes a long-term partnership.

I have worked with a community in Nicaragua on rural water access.  But building a water access system will not be sustainable if it is not linked to the understanding and exploration of the municipal government, the political will of the people, community organizing, community ownership, legal considerations of land rights, and how the laws work with passage of piping on people’s farm land with development and agriculture.  Without understanding these areas, the water system will not continue to work for very long after construction.  In fact, globally we know there is a 30- 50% failure rate of these water systems within the first 2-5 years of being implemented.  So, acknowledging these other factors (outside of just the technical aspect) will inform the financial and functional sustainability to get beyond construction (the initial “output”) – it will lead to impacts 7 to 10 years after construction.  Giving students the opportunities to engage in these ambiguous and uncertain problem solving exercises and then all of us learning from each other to understand the full system before construction can lead to functional sustainability for longer-term impact. (See Nora’s previous blog, which provides a story about a water system project and not understanding all angles of the issue.)

KB: What would be helpful for changing the focus to societal impacts  – assessing beyond just the short-term outputs and to be broader than the community outside of the university?

NPR: There is a quote that I like that goes something like, “We all know something, none of us knows everything, and working together we learn more about how to know.”  This really speaks to the humility that is required to truly collaborate for long-term impact.  Seeking to learn and not having all of the answers is key to making these collaborations work.  You have to know enough to engage with one another, but you have to not know enough to learn something new.

Another way to approach this is to be issue centered or place-based as opposed to being discipline or technology centered when doing community/university engagement.  It is critical that multiple disciplines come together.  Focusing on the SDG’s is a great way to do this.  What indicators of which SDG can you focus on as a desired impact for the long term?  Then, what are the outcomes needed within 5 to 7 years and the immediate outputs that can achieve those outcomes?

A few more thoughts:

  • Universities are just one sector – how can we create bridges with corporate, public, NGO’s, etc.
  • Who is educating, who is teaching, who is learning? (Reynolds, 2021)
  • How is our performance evaluated?  What counts as performance for faculty and staff?  What evidence is required?  Is the long-term work for impact important and valued? 
  • Who and how are just as important as the what (Reynolds, 2019)  

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