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What is Design for Social Justice?

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Socio-cultural Elements of Learning through Service

Tagged Division

Community Engagement Division

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1368.1 - 24.1368.30



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Paper Authors


Jon A. Leydens Colorado School of Mines

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Jon A. Leydens is an associate professor in the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies at the Colorado School of Mines, USA, where he has been since 1997. Research and teaching interests include communication, social justice, and engineering education. Dr. Leydens is a co-author of Engineering and Sustainable Community Development (2010). He recently served as guest editor for an engineering communication special issue in Engineering Studies and won the James F. Lufkin Award for the best conference paper—on the intersections between professional communication research and social justice—at the 2012 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference.

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Juan C. Lucena Colorado School of Mines

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Professor Lucena is Director of Humanitarian Engineering at Colorado School of Mines and teaches Engineering & Sustainable Community Development and Engineering & Social Justice. Juan obtained a Ph.D. in STS (Virginia Tech) and two engineering degrees (Rensselaer). His books include Engineering and Sustainable Community Development (Morgan &Claypool, 2010) and Engineering Education for Social Justice (Springer, 2013). He has researched under grants like Enhancing Engineering Education through Humanitarian Ethics, and Invisible Innovators: How low-income and first-generation students contribute to US engineering.

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Dean Nieusma Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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Dean Nieusma is Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Programs in Design and Innovation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is also co-Editor of the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace.

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What is Design for Social Justice?Design for industry, which prevails in engineering design courses, addresses constraints suchas budget, time and functionality established by a client. Meanwhile, human-centered design(HCD) emphasizes users' needs, desires, and cultural location, mainly through ergonomicsand aesthetics (Hirsch et al 2002). Although an established concept and practice in designstudies and some forms of industrial design, HCD has evolved to consider low-income andunderserved communities as users, challenging engineering design education to incorporatelistening to users; accommodation of human capacities, needs, and desires; and attention topeople’s culturally situated resources, resource limitations, and opportunities (IDEO, 2013).Despite its potential to push engineering education in productive directions, HCD also has itslimitations, particularly its inability to grapple with the structural conditions that give rise tomany of the needs HCD seeks to address. More generally, HCD can direct attention awayfrom the critical and sometimes-subtle dimensions of social justice (Nieusma and Riley,2010). Design cases that involve, for example, what Polack has described as “design for theother 90%” (2008) or designing for people with disabilities redirect attention to questions ofdesign for social justice. This paper identifies and briefly describes four forms of design:design for industry, HCD for users, HDC for communities, and design for social justice. Theremainder of the paper explores how social justice has been enacted—or neglected—inspecific design contexts within engineering education, and how it can be further integrated ineach of these forms of design education.This paper is part of a broader project to integrate social justice across three components ofengineering curricula—engineering design, engineering sciences, and humanities and socialsciences courses. To understand design-for-social-justice education in concrete terms, ourinvestigation provides a specific, field-tested definition of social justice and draws fromenactments of engineering for social justice in specific design courses: an engineering-by-doing course in the Humanitarian Engineering Program at the Colorado School of Mines, alearning-through-service experience in a senior design capstone course at Louisiana StateUniversity, and an interdisciplinary design studio in the Design, Innovation, and Societyprogram at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Our investigation involves semi-structuredinterviews with course instructors, reviews of course documents, and contextualization withinthe literature on design. Through this investigation, the paper seeks to provide: 1) a set ofemerging principles of design for social justice and 2) emerging guidelines on the processesby which social justice can be enacted in diverse design education contexts. Such researchoutcomes can improve our understanding of how design for social justice can inform designin community engagement contexts.

Leydens, J. A., & Lucena, J. C., & Nieusma, D. (2014, June), What is Design for Social Justice? Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23301

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