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Work in Progress: Contextualizing Engineering Service Learning by Applying the Practices of Community Organizing

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

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July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Student Division Technical Session 3

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Jessica Marie Mingee University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Jessica Mingee is a junior pursuing a major in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Sustainability, Energy, and Environment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a project lead within Engineers Without Borders, working with the community of Hopkins Park, Illinois to rehabilitate their wastewater system. Based on her interest in understanding how engineers gain the trust of their client communities, her research focuses on community organizing techniques and how engineers can utilize them to be more effective in their infrastructure projects.

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Ann-Perry Witmer P.E. University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign Orcid 16x16

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A research scientist, lecturer, and professional civil engineer, Ann-Perry Witmer is the architect of the emerging discipline of Contextual Engineering, which merges technical design with societal understanding to improve adoption outcomes. Dr. Witmer brings to the classroom her experience working as an engineering consultant in the United States and a volunteer on numerous drinking water projects with communities throughout the non-industrialized world. She holds a Ph.D. in Contextual Engineering, along with MS and BS degrees in civil/environmental engineering, as well as bachelor's degrees in journalism and art history. Her research group investigates the relevance and application of context to engineering and entrepreneurial processes both domestically and internationally.

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Service learning projects are recognized in engineering curricula as an excellent means of tangibly applying fundamental concepts, as well as allowing students to see a greater purpose behind their studies. However, the implementation of a technology or infrastructure within an unfamiliar community, whether domestic or international, requires not only an understanding of the technical concepts and constraints, but also the non-technical factors such as global context, power dynamics, and culture. Arduous as this may be, it is necessary for the sake of ensuring that these projects fulfill the needs of their respective client communities.

The humanitarian engineering model, often the basis for service learning project approaches in engineering, recognizes the importance of context and community engagement in the implementation of infrastructure. However, the literature also recognizes that the manner in which engineering students are taught to engage the community is ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. The platform of collaboration between the engineering team and the client community must be built on trust and communication. Without this platform, projects stand little chance of meeting the client community's goals.

Community organizing projects are comparable to engineering service learning projects in that they both involve engaging a community towards a common objective, even if it may be a social, political, or environmental objective in lieu of infrastructure. This paper will explore the possibility of adopting the approach of community organizing in order to more effectively implement engineering projects with regards to gaining trust, establishing a common objective between stakeholders, and ensuring that projects are driven by the client community.

Recognizing that engineering projects must be sensitive to the local conditions and needs of the client community, the concept of contextual engineering emerged at BLIND University. It is a newer, more holistic approach to engineering which seeks to better integrate both the technical goals and the client community goals when pursuing projects. For the purposes of this research, contextual engineering will serve as a means of connecting the approach of community organizing projects with the objective of humanitarian engineering projects.

In order to create the grounds for comparison between community organizing and engineering projects, an analogy will be used to separate the objective from the approach. While contextual engineering and humanitarian engineering may have a similar objective of implementing an infrastructure, their approach is different regarding community engagement. On the other hand, contextual engineering and community organizing utilize very similar approaches, despite having very different objectives.

To investigate these relationships, case studies from community organizing, contextual engineering, and humanitarian engineering are analyzed and documented through illustrative diagrams that capture the process from the initiation of the project to implementation.

Mingee, J. M., & Witmer, A. (2021, July), Work in Progress: Contextualizing Engineering Service Learning by Applying the Practices of Community Organizing Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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