The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Community Engagement Panel Explores Ways to Promote Racial and Social Justice in Engineering

Stephen Fernandez

Stephen Fernandez

The College of Engineering recently held a highly productive Community Engagement Panel, composed of four engineering students, as one of its continuing initiatives “to promote racial and social justice in engineering, particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement,” according to Engineering Engagement Specialist Dr. Stephen Fernandez of the College of Engineering. The panel considered a wide-ranging agenda for promoting “Justice Engineering,” or action-based steps to evolve the culture of engineering.

Watch a video of the Community Engagement Panel »

Panel members concentrated on “using our networks, resources, tools, and privileges to support, uplift, and build up our communities,” as the video clarified.

“The inspiration for the panel came over the summer,” explained Fernandez, “as [Assistant Dean for Diversity] Paula Rees, [Assistant Director for Diversity] Promise Mchenga, and I were talking about initiatives to promote racial and social justice in engineering, particularly in the context of Black Lives Matter.”

During the summer, the College of Engineering Office of Equity and Inclusion partnered with the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Information and Computer Sciences on a Black in STEM panel, which featured Black faculty in the three colleges.

“This Community Engagement Panel was a follow-up to that event,” said Fernandez. “We chose to highlight graduate students and to focus on students who are dedicating their research to supporting people in marginalized and vulnerable communities.”

The Community Engagement Panel and other related programs have essentially four vital goals:

  • creating curriculum that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • fostering an environment that is inclusive and equitable;
  • utilizing tools and resources to help communities’ unmet needs;
  • and focusing research efforts on highly vulnerable areas.

As Mchenga said, “The panel provided a window for students to see many opportunities that exist for engineering students to develop leadership skills while doing social and technical good among those who cannot pay back financially or materially.”

Various comments from some of the participants taking part in the Community Engagement Panel program demonstrated how College of Engineering students are rethinking how racial and social justice can be firmly embedded in engineering education.

“This lesson plan gives concrete case studies explaining the history of inequity in biomedical research,” said Biomedical Engineering major Esha Uddin about ChE 575, “but it was my favorite this week because it also presents positive steps being taken to address these issues. This aspect is incredibly important to be able to teach students that they can take action and advocate for the correction of past injustices in their field.”

According to Chemical Engineering M.S. candidate Sydney Foster, commenting about ChE 575, “Tissue engineering is a field with broad-reaching impacts in its infancy; discussing ethics and inequality before it reaches maturity is important to empower the newest generation of researchers and enable work that allows all people - regardless of race or sex - to benefit from the fruits of scientific labor.”

Another student, Computer Engineering major Siddhanth Ghosh, said that ECE 371 “is addressing how important a part sociology, ethics, politics, and law play in the discipline of security engineering. It is very nice for it to be acknowledged and that the instructor is trying to accommodate that aspect as well as form an amalgamation of the best of both worlds: engineering and the social sciences.”

Fernandez said that he has gotten to know each of the four presenters because of their dedication to community outreach and their efforts to build a welcoming climate for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who are students in the College of Engineering.

Fernandez noted that he met two of the presenters, Aggrey Muhebwa and June Lukuyu, when they gave a presentation of their work to a group of high school students in the Springfield area who were recently arrived from overseas. As Fernandez said, “The group included refugees from conflict in central Africa, and the aim was to show them how engineering can be used to improve the lives of people from places that are like their countries of origin.”

Fernandez got to know presenter Chinedum Eluwa through his role as a leader of a College of Engineering reading group.

“We read the book How to be and Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi,” recalled Fernandez. “Chinedum was a dynamic and engaging leader with a keen sense of the need to consider engineering as well as broader social dynamics in solving complex problems. Through the reading group, I learned that Chinedum was also engaged in research that was aimed at improving water quality for people in Tanzania.”

Fernandez met panel presenter Cielo Sharkus last year and said he immediately recognized her as a leader in promoting engineering for social justice.

“Cielo told me about her work in mapping social vulnerability here in Massachusetts, as well as in areas around California, and matching this with data on environmental risks,” said Fernandez. “Beyond researching this topic, Cielo has gone on to initiate a non-profit whose aim is to bring together academics, students, and community members to come up with ways to address environmental challenges facing vulnerable communities in Massachusetts.”

Fernandez concluded that the students who participated in the panel “are doing really impressive research focused on improving the lives of marginalized and vulnerable communities. It's great to make more people aware of what they are doing.” (October 2020)