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Efficacy of Curricular Enhancements to Address Social and Environmental Injustice in Civil Engineering

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Development Around Diversity

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Rebekah Oulton P.E. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Rebekah Oulton is an Associate Professor at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She started in Fall of 2013 after completing her PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. She teaches both water resources engineering and environmental engineering, emphasizing water sustainability via wastewater reuse and resource protection. She also teaches sustainability principles in civil and environmental engineering design, from first-year classes through capstone classes.

Her primary research focus is advanced treatment methods for removal of emerging contaminants during water and wastewater treatment. At CalPoly, she works with both civil and environmental engineering undergraduate students to to expand her research into application of sustainable reuse of wastewater reuse, as well as effective storm water management via Low Impact Development techniques. She contributes to Sustainability Across the Curriculum efforts on campus as well.

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Tessa Gail Gallagher California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Tessa is a fourth-year environmental engineering undergraduate at the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is involved in a group of students working to increase social justice focus in the school's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. This has lead to her current research on the topic. She is also involved with the Society of Environmental Engineers on campus as the Vice President. Outside of school, she works for the Central Coast Water Board as a student assistant. Tessa is planning on staying at Cal Poly for their master's program where she will continue to research the effects of integrating greater focus on social justice awareness into engineering curriculum.

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Claire Katherine Anovick California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Claire Anovick is a fourth-year civil engineering undergraduate at the [Institution] with interests in geotechnical engineering and geology. She currently serves as the co-founder of the SBSC, an organization comprised of civil and environmental students engaged in critical reflection on justice in engineering initiatives within engineering academia. Additionally, Claire serves as President of Cal Poly CalGeo and as a geotechnical engineering research assistant, developing course modules infusing social justice, sustainability, and equity within geotechnical engineering curricula. She is involved in the community as an intern at Earth Systems Pacific and as an amateur runner and rock collector on the Central Coast.

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This paper outlines ongoing research for implementing social and environmental justice curriculum enhancements within the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CE/ENVE) department at [Institution]. This research stemmed directly from the fatal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other BIPOC-identifying individuals in the past year alone. Additional calls to action included clear inequities in COVID-19 treatment, voting access, and the continuing water crisis in Flint Michigan. These calls brought attention to several ongoing issues historically perpetuated by the civil engineering profession, including district red lining; locating landfills, treatment plants, and industrial facilities in economically disadvantaged communities; as well as mineral extraction and energy production. It will be imperative for future engineers to acknowledge the intersection between social and environmental justice and civil engineering, and to appreciate the role engineers can play in addressing long-standing systemic injustices that have led to the current unrest.

After a series of Townhall meetings and one-on-one discussions, faculty and students jointly agreed that a broadly-focused curriculum enhancement approach would likely be more effective than adding a topic-specific class. The intent of the broadly-focused approach is to include consideration of social and environmental justice topics in all levels of the curriculum from students’ first-year through senior year. Ideally, this material would be introduced organically into the existing curriculum of the class, so social and environmental issues are considered in context of the course material rather than as a stand-alone topic.

This study was initiated to determine (a) existing levels of knowledge among the students, and (b) efficacy of brief, course-relevant lessons at increasing student awareness of the intersection between the course topic and social/environmental justice. To assess awareness across the range of the students in the department, surveys were conducted in the Introduction to Environmental Engineering and Introduction to Civil Engineering classes, as well as the Environmental Engineering Senior Capstone class. Students were asked to complete an anonymous survey assessing knowledge and awareness of social and environmental justice issues before and after the enhanced material was delivered to the class.

Lower division curriculum enhancements were focused on achieving lower level Bloom’s taxonomy based around defining terms, understanding problems, and applying understanding. Upper division enhancements were focused on upper level Bloom's taxonomy achievements, such as analyzing problems and developing solutions. In order to fully incorporate socially-focused enhancements to existing curriculum, it should be seen that students benefit through an increased social understanding and greater ability to demonstrate critical and systems-level thinking.

This study will provide the foundation for inclusion of social and environmental justice instruction modules more broadly throughout the Civil and Environmental Engineering Curriculum at [Institution]. Additionally, it may provide a model for other universities to integrate social and environmental justice education into their existing civil engineering curriculum by analyzing student response to curriculum enhancements. The ability to acknowledge social justice in engineering will be crucial for tomorrow’s engineers to develop equitable solutions as they face a diverse and changing world.

Oulton, R., & Gallagher, T. G., & Anovick, C. K. (2021, July), Efficacy of Curricular Enhancements to Address Social and Environmental Injustice in Civil Engineering Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37017

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