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Pushing the Boundaries of Mass and Energy: Sustainability and Social Justice Integration in Core Engineering Science Courses

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Integrating Social Justice in Engineering Science Courses

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society and Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1286.1 - 26.1286.12



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Paper Authors


Donna M. Riley Virginia Tech

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Donna Riley is Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech

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Pushing the Boundaries of Mass and Energy: Sustainability and Social Justice Integration in Core Engineering Science CoursesThis paper, part of a special session on integrating social justice in core engineering courses,discusses lessons learned from specific attempts (in two courses over several years of teaching)to integrate social justice considerations in sustainability instruction. As the session descriptionnotes, most sustainability education in engineering has to date done a thorough job ensuringstudent learning about the relationship between sustainability considerations and the economicbottom line, but has done far less in considerations of people and communities, rarely taking upquestions of power and equity.In this paper I draw on my experience developing, teaching, and assessing modules incollaboration with colleagues in the Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace network to integratesocial justice considerations in our core courses. I will reflect on lessons learned from twoassignments in two different core courses, each implemented in the larger context of engineeringat a liberal arts college. Here introducing a social justice dimension of sustainability was a smallpart of a larger effort to integrate liberal education into core courses.One module introduced students in a first year Mass and Energy Balances course to the tool ofLife Cycle Assessment (LCA) for developing and analyzing green products and processes, whilesimultaneously offering a critique of green consumerism which was incorporated into studentLCA projects. A key learning outcome was that students understood not only the promises of thetool but also its limitations and when it is and is not appropriately used.A second module, in Engineering Thermodynamics, sought to integrate considerations of climatechange, ethics, and global economic inequality. The course, taught in the fall semester, usuallyoverlapped with a major international climate summit. Using the 2009 Copenhagen summit ascase study, students analyzed the conflict between countries in the global North and globalSouth, with guided prompts and background reading to aid them in understanding andincorporating into their analysis the power relations evident in the climate talks, borne ofhistories of colonialism and present-day neoliberal economic policies. This case study wasamong several ethics assignments offered throughout the semester, and in some years was part ofa wider exploration of global climate change. Taken as a whole, the ethics assignments andreflective engagement of students produced gains in critical thinking and reflective action, alongwith resistance from some students policing disciplinary boundaries of the course, opening spacefor motivating conversations about the syllabus in the context of the larger engineering program.The paper will conclude with some lessons learned related to design of assignments, motivationof social justice topics, scaffolding for specific social justice concepts and terminology that maybe new to students, challenges of transforming an over packed curriculum, and how studentresistance to topics perceived as “not engineering” can be a positive learning opportunity.

Riley, D. M. (2015, June), Pushing the Boundaries of Mass and Energy: Sustainability and Social Justice Integration in Core Engineering Science Courses Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24623

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