Making the Connection

By Lorenzo C.

Throughout my time in the Mechanical Engineering department, I have struggled with the lack of connection most classes have with one very important thing: people. We learn about many complex concepts and the theory behind how they operate, but very rarely have I received information on the connection to the people who these concepts effect. Engineering for Social Change has allowed me to take an engineering class in which I can focus on this connection, and explore engineering’s relevance to those who may not be engineers.

I think some of my perspective on this issue comes from being a double major with Government and Politics. In that department, people are essential. Government is truly the study of the organization of people, and thus the human aspect must be considered with any topic or theory. On the other hand, with engineering is so easy to focus solely on the math or physics behind concepts, and ignore how humans interact with the concept.
In this class we have explored many ways in which to bridge this connection. Through the ISSC projects we have been able to focus on how engineering can be a solution to social and political issues. My group has tackled the water crisis in Syria and the surrounding region – this has made relevant for us how engineers are instrumental during political upheaval. I think usually, the engineering in these types of situations is ignored. People want to know what the politicians are saying and doing, and what the militaries are saying and doing. The impact of engineers is swept under the rug and ignored.

The same can be said of the grant process. We could have focused on the math and physics of the projects that we considered. Instead, this class encouraged us to think differently: instead of asking how much water does a pump produce, ask how many people can drink from well. This context allows for a much better understanding of solution.

Unfortunately, due to the many different aspects of the class, it was difficult to delve much past the surface of any of these issues in the class. We were not able to discuss the 2nd and 3rd degree impacts of our decisions; all the class had time to discuss was the immediate impacts we would be making. It became difficult to appreciate the discussion when the impacts we discussed tended to boil down to just one question: how many people are we impacting. This became very clear the last days when the slides we looked at for making our final decision emphasized making a qualitative judgment on the projects based on the number of people impacted. In my mind, social change and social impact is much more nuanced then that. If you have a huge impact on a few people, it can be so much more powerful then a slight impact on a large group of people. I understand why the decision was made to simplify this understanding, but it did expose the lack of depth the class was able to reach.

Finally, a comment of the students in the class. I believe that this class draws in a certain group of people; those that already consider the social impact of their decisions to some degree. This makes it possible to delve deeper into topics, but it also misses all the engineers who do not make these considerations because they would not be interested in this class in the first place. Instead, this class needs to be mandatory.

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