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Scholars call for ‘social justice’ in civil engineering courses

‘Civil engineering students need to engage with diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice … so they can understand the differential impacts of engineering on individuals from different groups within society’

Civil engineering courses should not just focus on how to construct sewers, build roads, or design bridges — they should also include “social justice” and “diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice,” according to a recent academic paper.

“Civil engineering students need to engage with diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) so they can understand the differential impacts of engineering on individuals from different groups within society,” a group of professors wrote in a paper for the Journal of Civil Engineering Education.

Three Colorado State University professors, Aramati Casper, Rebecca Atadero, and Tom Siller, authored the paper, along with civil engineer Rahman Abdallah.

The College Fix twice contacted the authors of the article about how they defined the intersection between DEI and engineering, why they believed “depoliticization” of the engineering field was harmful, and if they had any further plans to implement DEI into curricula. They have not responded to requests for comment sent in the past several weeks.

“The purpose of this paper is to encourage the transformation of civil engineering education by promoting the development of engineers who are prepared to engage with society and advance justice in their future professional roles,” the authors wrote.

They also wrote “external pressure” including “climate change” and “globalization … are changing the demands, possibilities, and constraints acting on civil engineering design spaces and the ways in which civil engineering work is done.”

“The ethical imperative of engineers to improve the quality of life for all is a call to social justice, a call that also can be thought of as creating fairness within society,” they wrote.

“We must shift our framing to teach the societal impacts of civil engineering work and how the work of civil engineering can advance justice or thwart it,” according to the professors.

The authors argued “there is a growing recognition among engineering educators of the need to engage our students in lessons about the societal implications of engineering and social justice, but many, if not most, engineering educators never experienced this type of learning.”

“Faculty may feel this type of content is dangerous or be in settings where there may be constraints on what they teach, given the deep political polarization in the United States and the recent wave of state level legislation banning different kinds of DEI activities at public institutions,” the researchers wrote.

MORE: San Fran State hires ‘anti-racist’ engineering dean

“Guidance is needed to help faculty overcome these barriers to incorporating societal impact and social justice content into their courses,” according to the paper.

They wrote they believe engineering is “framed within a culture of disengagement.” Disengagement includes “depoliticization,” which “is the belief that engineering is unbiased, and therefore can and should be removed from social and political contexts.”

Another pillar of disengagement is “meritocracy,” which they wrote they believe “upholds current social structures as both fair and just” and “enforces the assimilation of those with minoritized identities into the culture of disengagement.”

As an example of this, they wrote that “even when women engineering students recognize that they are being marginalized, they still tend to uphold the cultural practices that propagate these systems of oppression.”

To counter disengagement, the scholars argued “it is vital for engineering to be framed as it actually exists—embedded within social, cultural, and technical systems and as a practice with real social justice ramifications.”

In the paper, the authors note engineering students are less politically involved than students in other majors.

They said that the “lack of political involvement could be attributed in part to the time engineering students spend on coursework, but also the fact that engineering classrooms emphasize technical content.”

“These reasons indicate that incorporating societal impact and social justice into required engineering coursework may be a way to support consciousness raising within tight schedules,” the professors wrote.

Their paper then describes different assignments they had used to “understand the societal implications of engineering work.”

Education commentator says ‘DEI is undermining’ STEM

The idea of incorporating DEI into civil engineering drew criticism from S.T. Karnick with the Heartland Institute.

“DEI is undermining the future of science and technology by taking valuable time away from the development of high-level expertise in the specifics of a student’s chosen field of study,” the think tank’s research director told The Fix via email. Karnick regularly writes about education and culture for the Heartland Institute and a variety of publications.

“The DEI agenda wastes students’ study time on extraneous matters that can better be dealt with elsewhere—such as in required or optional core college courses, on social media, and in coffee shop,” he said.

“The idea of incorporating social justice concerns into the training of engineers confuses two central goals of higher education,” Karnick said. “Passing on high-level expertise in science, technology, or the humanities is the sole responsibility of each individual discipline.”

“Equipping students with the wisdom of the ages is the duty of the institution as a whole, through core course requirements and other opportunities for learning,” he said.

“Such wisdom is intended to guide and humanize the students’ later work in their chosen fields. Unfortunately, the political takeover of American higher education, with DEI as its latest craze, has trashed these distinctions and turned everything on campus into a tool of leftist indoctrination.”

MORE: Science education journal seeks articles on ‘systemic oppression’ in biology

IMAGES: WMaireche/Shutterstock.com/SignsForJustice/HAERS; College Fix design

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Benjamin Rothove is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, serves as the Chairman of UW-Madison Students for DeSantis, and is the National Vice-Chair of Young Leaders for Keep Nine.