In the spring semester of 2020, undergraduates Katherine (Kat) Nilov and Sanjana Manghnani of the Chemical Engineering Department participated in Engineer Engagement Specialist Dr. Stephen Fernandez’s pilot course on “Learning through Community Engagement and Bridging Engineering Theory and Practice.” Recently, the Campus Compact Website posted an interview with Nilov and Manghnani, in which they very eloquently articulated the impact of the course on their worldview about engineering itself and using their future profession to engage with surrounding communities.
Campus Compact is a national coalition of colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. The interview with Nilov and Manghnani was the third in a series of posts leading up to a special session at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2021 conference on July 27, 2021, entitled “At the Crossroads of Community Engagement, Ethics, Liberal Education, and Social Responsibility: Community engaged engineering education challenges and opportunities in light of COVID-19.”
The purpose of this post was to explore the value of community engaged learning from a student perspective.
As Nilov described their class with Fernandez, “Every week we had a student running a prompted discussion…A lot of the discussion topics were about things like racism in engineering or the environment and engineering…It was very ethics-based, which is very different from most of the classes that we take traditionally. We had readings beforehand and then students who led the discussion would summarize the readings and create discussion prompts.”
Nilov added that “We would go into breakout groups and talk about it. We had a group of 11 students plus the professor, so it was really nice that we could build a community together.”
As part of that community building dynamic, the students participated in hands-on engineering projects with community partners.
“For our project we worked with Nuestra Raices, a worker-owned cooperative farm in Holyoke, and the project was to design a cover for their irrigation valves that were freezing and breaking in the winter,” explained Manghnani.
Because it was during the height of the pandemic, the students communicated with the cooperative by Zoom. As Manghnani said, “We shared our presentation, including the exact dimensions and the cost for the materials, and gave them instructions on how to go about it. Something else that we did was reflections every week.”
The course affected the two students in various ways. As Nilov said, “We focused on the geographic area directly around us, so we talked a lot about Springfield and how it’s the asthma capital of the U.S. This was a topic that really interested me, and I ended up using the knowledge that I learned from Steve’s class to write a paper for my junior writing class about the ethics of building a biomass facility.”
Nilov also said that the course would have long-term consequences for her future in engineering: “We can make sure that whatever companies we work for, that our values line up with them, and if we are in a company that might have questionable values or ethics, we can reject projects or propose different solutions.”
Manghnani agreed: “Having all these ideas and trying to implement change, like talking to faculty and advisors, has been something I’ve been doing because of Steve’s class—implementing the idea that you can change something you don’t like.”
As one consequence, Manghnani is looking at humanitarian engineering programs at different schools for her graduate studies. “I definitely have had a change in perspective and am now wanting to change engineering itself,” she said.
Nilov put the impact of the course very succinctly: “Working with the community partners taught me that learning is larger than the educational system that we’re in.”
“I feel like just because we have this title of engineer doesn’t mean we’re above anyone,” said Manghnani. “We’re not above the community partners we are working with or above any other major. By working with these communities, it’s really like we’re on the same level, like we’re just learning from each other. We’re not saving them. We don’t know more. We’re just trying to work together.” (July 2021)