By  Jennifer McManamay
Jordan Crawley and Alexa Borden
UVA Engineering students Jordan “JC” Crawley and Alexa Borden both took social justice-related science, technology and society courses in the 2020-2021 academic year. Each came away with a deeper understanding of engineering’s role in contributing to entrenched social injustice, and how their future design decisions as engineers could influence whether technology fairly impacts all people.

Soon after Lake Pontchartrain flooded New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, Kathryn "Kay" Neeley began using social justice case studies in the classes she teaches at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Like COVID-19, Katrina revealed existing injustices, including what we now call structural racism. At the time, we talked about ‘environmental racism,’” Neeley, an associate professor of science, technology and society in the Department of Engineering and Society, said.

These days, Neeley spends a lot more time in classes on the ways in which engineering helps or hurts groups of people. So do her department colleagues. Social justice concepts in engineering, at one time implicit in science, technology and society’s ethics teachings, are now explicit throughout the curriculum.

Every UVA Engineering student’s initial introduction to the social and ethical aspects of engineering practice is STS 1500, Designing for a Sustainable World. The first thing they learn is that when engineers design and build technologies, they build societies, said Benjamin Laugelli, an assistant professor in the department.

Two years ago, Laugelli restructured the course, which he co-teaches with W. Bernard Carlson, Joseph L. Vaughan Professor of Humanities, around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 objectives as part of a global action plan to end poverty, protect the planet, promote prosperity and ensure peace for all.

“Because the UN uses a broad concept of sustainability, this gets the projects more squarely in the science, technology and society space,” Laugelli said. “The goals address environmental and economic sustainability, but they also address social sustainability, and that’s where social justice comes in. Reduced inequality is one goal, gender equality is one, good health and wellbeing is one, along with the resources to provide those things to all kinds of people.”

For the culminating assignment, students write a patent application in response to a request for proposal seeking ideas for a technological innovation that could help the UVA community make progress toward one or more of the UN goals. The task requires students to integrate skills and concepts taught throughout the semester.

"The implicit biases that we all carry around get replicated in a set of design choices and can end up inadvertently excluding or maybe even harming certain people."

Benjamin Laugelli Benjamin Laugelli Assistant Professor of Science, Technology and Society

The concepts include ethical frameworks, such as John Rawls’ theory of justice and care ethics, which students use to translate social justice into the design choices they make. Laugelli now teaches care ethics — the belief that engineers have a duty to practice care for others — as part of every class, he said, to convey the importance of diversity, equity and inclusivity in design.

Some of the discussion centers on technologies that demonstrate gender and racial bias, and the degree to which the bias is intentional. For example, Laugelli uses the case of sunscreen in several classes. He assigns an article in The Atlantic about how the safest and most effective sunscreen formulations leave a visible cast most noticeable on dark skin. The problem discourages people of color from using sunscreen, despite proven benefits, but manufacturers remain focused on meeting regulatory efficacy and safety standards, not appearance.

“The implicit biases that we all carry around get replicated in a set of design choices and can end up inadvertently excluding or maybe even harming certain people,” Laugelli said.

Lectures and case studies always tie concepts back to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, Carlson gives a lecture on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to demonstrate how the city sacrificed the health and wellbeing of its poorest residents by knowingly exposing them to a water system contaminated with lead.

“STS faculty constantly evaluate and update course materials,” Carlson said. “They’re encouraged to look for the issues and challenges students are concerned with and where those intersect with their expertise, case studies and course objectives to make the classes as relevant as possible.”

Race-based inequity in society is increasingly on the minds of students and faculty. That’s especially true since the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, said Rosalyn Berne, the Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics and noted ethicist who directs the National Science Foundation-funded Online Ethics Center at UVA. In response to Floyd’s death, Berne developed a new ethics course called Race Matters in Engineering and Technology.

The still-evolving course surveys historical examples from an ethics perspective of racial implications from engineered devices and the systems that grow up around them.

“Some of the issues that came up last year around policing don’t look like they’re engineering issues, but they wouldn’t exist without the guns, bodycams and surveillance systems,” Berne said. “It’s important to deconstruct and make apparent the beliefs and attitudes about race that are embedded in the artifacts themselves, the mindset and intentions that are systemic.

“For example, seeing black and brown people as a problem to be solved rather than addressing the social and economic roots of our contemporary challenges. Engineering and design — and therefore engineers — play a significant role in the sociotechnical systems, such as in the ‘prison industrial complex,’ where matters of gross social injustice have come to light.”

Alexa Borden, a third-year mechanical engineering major from Boise, Idaho, who took Berne’s class, said she was surprised at how much engineering has contributed to social inequity.

“By taking subjects like policing, algorithms and elections, and then questioning how engineering contributes to the social injustices behind these issues, I started to expand the lens through which I could consider and predict how the technical decisions made by engineers could influence social aspects,” Borden said.

Neeley thinks racism has overtaken the environment as students’ No. 1 social justice concern in the past year, but she was already planning to address the legacy of slavery in her classroom. One reason was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, which brought home the intractability of racial division in America. Neeley, who is white, attended a South Carolina high school that was 75% Black, and newly integrated under court order.

“That experience of being the minority was the most educational thing that could have happened to me,” she said. “In some areas, we’ve come a long way. From other perspectives, we haven’t. Whites often ask, ‘Why can’t we just leave it in the past?’ but when you understand the history, you see it’s not in the past — it’s present. For example, we’re still segregated. It’s voluntary, but it’s here.”

"Some of the issues that came up last year around policing don’t look like they’re engineering issues, but they wouldn’t exist without the guns, bodycams and surveillance systems."

Rosalyn Berne Rosalyn Berne Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics and Director of the Online Ethics Center

A second reason was practical. She needed an analogy for how difficult it is to change a flawed sociotechnical system. During the 2021 January Term, Neeley inaugurated “Slavery as a Sociotechnical System” as a case study to help students to see the potential ethical complications with systems they could be invested in or part of developing, such as internet enterprise or social media.

“Once a system starts to coalesce, it’s got momentum, wealth builds up in it, people have careers in it, and even if people look around and say, ‘This is one of the worst ideas we ever had,’ it’s going to be really, really hard to change,” she said. “That doesn’t mean change is not the way to go.”

Neeley structured her J-Term course to examine slavery and its aftermath as a series of historical events and to deliberate where we’d be today if certain things had gone differently. For instance, what if Abraham Lincoln lived to carry out his more lenient Reconstruction policies in the South? Would there have been less resistance to notions of equality? She asked students to consider when would have been a good time to end slavery. Plenty of people, from its beginning, understood slavery was horrific on a human level but also detrimental to society — a point that third-year student Jordan “JC” Crawley of Glen Allen said was striking to him.

Crawley, a computer science major with a minor in Japanese language, said one of his biggest takeaways was realizing how much more history there is to know than what he was taught in school.

“It was interesting to learn about exactly why slavery was such a big part of U.S. history and so difficult to get rid of, as well as why we describe it as a sociotechnical system; that is, how people, technology and ideas all come together to make up the system,” Crawley said.

That’s what Neeley hoped students would take away.

“If we can see the continuity or the disruption of patterns from the past, if we can see how much difference a strategy adopted in the past makes eventually,” Neeley said, “then I hope that it makes it easier to have moral imagination and moral courage in the present to say, ‘Yes, it'll be a lot of trouble to change course, but it could very well be worth it in the long run.’”

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