I’m sitting in panels and sessions at this great conference on Engineering, Social Justice and Peace which is the 7th annual conference of this kind. Here are only some of the snippets of what I’ve been seeing and hearing:

  • I heard yesterday of exciting and courageous curricular attempts to integrate social justice into engineering education. I heard of a course called “Engineering and Social Justice” offered through engineering and sociology at Queen’s University, a first-year course where projects were focused on social justice, year-long experiences for students in Engineers Without Borders, and PhD projects on social justice in engineering education. It’s pretty humbling.
  • I heard this morning from community activists in the Northampton and New England area about the work they are doing, including: the decertification of Vermont Yankee which is an old nuclear powerplant that is crumbling before citizens’ eyes, net neutrality and the free press, the cost of the Iraq war and how the divvying up of the federal budget maps to our national priorities, and how undergraduate students can organize around issues of environmental justice to prevent solid waste disposal in the community of Holyoke. All of these folks need engineers’ help, and have pointed out that engineering doesn’t have a culture of pro bono work, but that this work is desperately needed. Any volunteers to start a culture of engineering pro bono volunteerism? Any projects you know about?
  • I just found out about POPLINE’s recent decision to use “abortion” as a stopword in its database. Found out from my mom and the health science librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; also listed at feministing, along with information about Johns Hopkins press release condemning the act. Anyone know more about this?
  • A keynote by Indira Nair about integrating engineering with an ethic of care, and what it could mean to care in a context of engineering and technology.
  • A discussion led by Jessica Tucker about an organization called the Institute for OneWorld Health, which is a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company which takes other companies “unprofitable drug leads” and puts them through additional research and clinical trials, getting regulatory approval and such. Other companies donate their “unprofitable drug leads” as intellectual property because they get a big tax break donating to a non-profit, and this company pulls everything through for these drugs that actually have tremendous potential for humanitarian good. There are other organizations that do similar things, such as the Drugs for Neglected Diseases, too, to investigate.
  • Jeff Rosenblum talked aboutLivable Streets Alliance and their work for urban street design and public spaces in Boston. How can we redesign urban streets to repair our fragmented communities, to develop inclusive communities? This presenter pointed out that people like vibrant downtowns but also like that they get in their cars and want to get home to the suburbs asap. They forget that vibrant communities aren’t made by sprinkling “vibrant community dust” but that develop from people living full, complete and comprehensive lives in downtowns. This presenter points out that we shouldn’t let transportation models dictate how to design our streets, but instead we as engineers should tell models what we want the street to feel like, have the models tell us how congested it will feel, and then make a social decision. Also, apparently wider streets don’t make safer streets. Did you know that?
  • Chris Papadopoulos talking about his own moral journey and how it intersects with a broader moral professional journey in engineering, being told in the process that, just as a creationist cannot truly be a scientist, perhaps a person who rejects engineering’s military connections cannot be an engineer.
  • Nate Preston, an undergrad from Queens University, talked about using Facebook and other online communities and applications to think differently about encouraging people to think locally and act locally
  • Caroline Baillie and Eric Feinblatt took off from academia to try and put social justice engineering into practice. They took the idea of socially-just natural fiber composites, went to Buenos Aires with just about no funding, and developed a way to make a product from plastic bags and cardboard collected from carteneros which they could then sell. They got the carteneros cooperatives to provide the materials, a local craftsperson to build the press that was designed by a colleague who donated his time to design it, and a lab at a university to test the material properties of the product, and so on. Read their blog of their 6 months doing this project.
  • Michael Swedish talked about the idea of “exergy” instead of entropy that can help teach thermodynamics as well as social justice. The idea of exergy is linked to availability of energy that is useful, and this person used the idea to also talk about the dangers of a consumer economy or the belief that we can have constant economic growth (first law of thermo: you can’t win; second law of thermo: you can’t tie).
  • Dean Nieusma tried to herd all the participants to consider some provocative questions that stemmed from various discussions including: what are the risks involved in defining social justices as engineering problems? and if engineers are problem solvers, what are sociologists, or artists, or urban planners?

Additional engineering and social justice and peace resources:


  1. #1 ecogeofemme
    April 5, 2008

    That sounds like a cool conference!

  2. #2 amanda
    April 5, 2008

    That does sound like a cool conference. I especially like the idea of having a class that focuses on social justice.

  3. #3 SC
    April 5, 2008

    Thanks for posting about this.

    By the way, if anyone will still be in the area later in the week, MIT is hosting a conference – “Disruptive Environments” – that might also be of interest:

  4. #4 ScienceWoman
    April 5, 2008

    What an interesting conference and thanks for sharing some of the ideas and research with us.

  5. #5 stepwise girl
    April 5, 2008

    Thanks for all these, it sounds all quite exciting. The stuff about urban street design: I have heard and read many times that better road infrastructure and more parking generally does not improve traffic because it just brings more cars (eg Thomas Princen refers to that in his book the logic of sufficiency) but involving citizens and their residential and mobility choices really brings it to a whole new dimension. Thanks for pointing at Livable Streets Alliance. And enjoy the conference!

  6. #6 ScienceMama
    April 5, 2008

    What an awesome conference!

  7. #7 ceresina
    April 5, 2008

    Do people really think wider streets are safer?

  8. #8 Shawn Janairo
    April 5, 2008

    During my studies in biomedical engineering, I have become acquainted with another organization relevant to this topic: Engineering World Health. EWH is centered at Duke University, but there are several other chapters as well including one at the nearby university which I attend. Essentially members of this organization refurbish medical equipment and donate it to hospitals in need. I am amazed at how many broken and outdated machines and other devices are discarded each year.

  9. #9 gina svarovsky
    April 5, 2008

    Wow Alice – this sounds like an excellent conference. Thanks for liveblogging it and I’m seriously thinking about attending the next one!

  10. #10 Anon
    April 6, 2008

    I’m not trying to stir up a hornet’s nest, but I’m curious about your snippet regarding Chris Papadapolous. Do you really believe a creationist can’t be a scientist?

    I realize some literal interpretations of Genesis don’t exactly match scientific discoveries. But when I read the work by cosmologists who point out that at one moment the universe exploded and they’re not not sure where it all came from, it reminds me of some of those opening verses in Genesis 1.

    Sounds like a wonderful and challenging coference at any rate.

  11. #11 Alice
    April 6, 2008

    Anon – The comment was actually intended to be problematic from the engineering side. I think the analogy to the science/creationism debate is interesting, but I certainly think that one can be an engineer and reject its continuing relationship with militarism.

    Thanks, others, for the other links! It was a cool conference. Next year’s is going to be on Whidby Island, and I can’t wait.

  12. #12 Zuska
    April 9, 2008

    : what are the risks involved in defining social justices as engineering problems?

    For one, the risk of bringing down the social conservatives on your head. They have been haranguing the folks in schools of education for several years now for attempting to include ideas of social justice in education. Apparently, social justice = Destruction of All We Red-Blooded Americans Hold Dear, for them. Meaning, the right of the rich and privileged to accrue more riches and privilege at the expense of everyone else, because that’s the American Way.

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