Engineering social justice
In a new course, “Engineering, the Environment and Society,” Khalid Kadir is challenging his students to build more just and equitable systems by rethinking the role engineers play in social issues.
A couple of years after studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, Khalid Kadir was living in France trying to make it as a professional road bike racer. But the itinerant life as a cycling journeyman in the late 1990s was grueling, and he started looking for what was next.
So Kadir moved to California when a friend offered him a job at a Silicon Valley startup. Not long after, he decided to return to school. He was interested in international development work and thought that engineering was a good way to stay out of the fray of politics that bog down other well-meaning professions. “I became an engineer because I just wanted to do good,” Kadir says. In 2001, he enrolled in Berkeley’s master’s program in environmental engineering and began studying with CEE professor Kara Nelson, who specializes in drinking water and sanitation systems in developing countries.
On the heels of completing his master’s degree, while driving cross-country, Kadir stopped at a pay phone in Utah to call Nelson to ask how he did on his comprehensive exam. Nelson said he had done extremely well and asked him if he wanted to come back for a Ph.D. And he did.
Over the next few years, Kadir became an expert in using natural systems, ponds specifically, to manage wastewater as a development strategy. But he kept coming back to a nagging question: wastewater treatment ponds are relatively simple to build and maintain compared to other systems, but they don’t get built in places that need them the most. Meanwhile, the problems of waterborne illness and disease persist. He wanted to know why. Kadir started taking courses beyond his doctoral requirements—courses in social theory, water policy, international development and economics.
Despite his earlier aversion to politics, Kadir came to understand that engineering projects, while framed in a technical context, relate directly to political currents, namely social structures like power and privilege. Building wastewater treatment ponds, he learned, isn’t strictly about technology; it has more to do with land ownership and access.
“Technical experts draw a box around a technical problem. We call it a control volume,” Kadir says. “We have inputs and outputs and we deal with what’s inside the box. So when we draw the box around water in the Central Valley that contains nitrate, we don’t look at undocumented laborers, we don’t look at substandard housing, we don’t look at that larger picture because that’s not what our training tells us to do. We are there to deal with nitrate in drinking water. I started unpacking that in my own work and started asking about the bigger picture.”
In order to get more on-the-ground experience and to study wastewater systems in another context, Kadir spent 2007 in Morocco as a Fulbright scholar. When he returned to Berkeley in 2008, he tried his hand at teaching as a graduate student instructor in the Global Poverty and Practice minor. During his last semester in spring 2010, Kadir was invited to a faculty meeting and was asked to be the lead lecturer for a global poverty course in the fall. Each semester his teaching load increases. “Teaching has forced me to keep my game up. I’ve read more in three-and-a-half years of teaching than in all my grad years,” Kadir says.
Now Kadir occupies a unique position at the university: a lecturer with a strong technical background teaching largely non-engineering students. But that is changing: Kadir was recently named a Chancellor’s Public Scholar, an appointment through American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES), a university-wide program designed to bring community
engagement and diverse perspectives into the classroom. He was then given the task of developing a course that teaches social justice concepts to engineering students.
“Certain people are stuck living on the margins. The forces that drove them to live on the margins are the places where we can apply engineering,” Kadir says. “How do we make engineering part of larger solutions and not just technology pieces that we throw in and leave?”
Kadir’s new course, “Engineering, the Environment and Society,” is open to all university students, but most are engineers. In addition to reading environmental justice scholars and hearing from expert guest lecturers, the class also critiques case studies outlining the connection between design and placement of infrastructure projects and the impact on communities.
By exposing students to these concepts now, the goal is to create professionals better equipped to tackle large social problems and to understand their ethical responsibilities as technical experts. “Critical thinking just doesn’t happen in courses where you are trying to figure out problems using mathematics or physics,” says Oscar Dubón, the college’s associate dean for equity and inclusion and an early advocate of the new course. “A lot of engineering problems involve complex or unclear social, political and economic issues. Providing students an opportunity to explore that is important.”
One big draw for students in the class is the opportunity to work with community partners on actual engineering projects.
As the course unfolds, half of the class opts to work in teams of four or five with nonprofit organizations on active community-based projects. The projects include data analysis of air quality issues in a West Oakland neighborhood, working with partners in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood to study and map areas affected by chronic storm flooding and trying to treat and reduce nitrate-laced drinking water in the Central Valley.
“Without exception, every community partner we talk to sees helping students learn this stuff as a priority,” Kadir says. “They want engineers out there who think about these things.”
Derek Hitchcock, an ecologist focused on urban watershed issues with the Richmond-based Watershed Project, is one of those community partners. Hitchcock is working with a student team on developing educational materials about low-impact development strategies, such as rainwater catchment and storm water management that he can use to train his staff and community members.
The Watershed Project recently built a water-retaining bioswale along the Richmond Greenway, a public path and open space reclaimed from historic railroad use. The benefits of the project are hidden underground—that’s why Hitchcock also asked the student team to build a portable demonstration model of how the bioswale works, so that the process is visible to community members.
Hitchcock has been working at the intersection of ecology and engineering for years and is excited to see engineering students exposed to community work early in their training. “It allows students to see how anything they design and build in the future will impact communities,” he says. “Projects can have a positive or negative impact. So it is a good opportunity for them to understand that they can make the world more livable and not just build things that are structurally sound.”
Two other student teams are involved with water projects in California farmworker communities. “The students realize nitrate in the water is a very serious problem, and you have to attack the problem from all angles,” says Shen Huang, a technical analyst with the Community Water Center (CWC), an organization working on nitrate contamination in drinking water
in the Central Valley. Huang is an MIT-trained mechanical engineer with a background in community-based development.
The students working with CWC visit families in the unincorporated farming town of Monson, between Fresno and Bakersfield, to test the effectiveness of home-based water filters. Nitrate contamination is a byproduct of industrial agriculture and most California farmworker communities that get their drinking water from private wells are dealing with some level of exposure. There is clear evidence that high nitrate levels in drinking water are connected to cancer, birth defects and blue baby syndrome.
In Monson, students visit families when drawing samples for their filter tests. While in the homes, students get the chance to better understand some of the challenges related to purchasing and maintaining their off-the-shelf reverse-osmosis filters. “It’s like stepping out of the book and actually being in the story,” Huang says.
While access to engineering expertise for some of California’s marginalized communities is a big theme of the class, an undercurrent of the course is the idea of access to engineering as a profession for students interested in pursuing community development work.
“I didn’t even know about engineering until I got here,” says Areidy Beltran, a fourth-year earth and planetary science major who is working with the Community Water Project. She attributes her participation in the class, in part, to her interest in pursuing civil engineering in graduate school. “My main interest is developing sustainable and simple technologies to improve environmental conditions for underrepresented minorities in the U.S., as well as for people abroad without sufficient resources,” she says. “This class puts it all together—it gives examples but also includes the science.”
Beltran is the first member of her family to attend college. She says the introduction to the social justice concepts that apply to her as a first-generation student and also as a scientist have been eye-opening. After one lecture about power and privilege in the U.S., she remembers thinking, “I was a statistic on the board. I can actually talk about experiences based on those statistics. It is weird to see other people learning about you when you are the subject sitting in class—it was really interesting to see that.”
Kadir looks forward to the end of the class, when students submit reflective essays on their own positions of power, privilege and developing sense of professional ethics. He also wants to see the course assessments to figure out how the vision aligns with actual learning outcomes.
“I hold these different fields in my hands, and that can be challenging at times. I see myself as a translator because I end up in between these places where people speak different languages,” Kadir says, referring to the separation between the technical and the political. “But essentially, that’s what teaching is at some level.”