Reading Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, “The Fountainhead,” made Emma Stephens, a civil engineering student who graduated from the University of Virginia Department of Engineering Systems and Environment in May, take stock of what she really wants to do in life.
Stephens recognized a little of herself in Peter Keating, the A-student, always-conforming architect whom Rand juxtaposes with the book’s hero, the brilliant and doggedly individualistic Howard Roark.
“I don’t want to see myself in 30 years and be disappointed that I was never able to reflect on my interests and have them play out,” said Stephens, who prior to graduating had worked two internships with major international engineering design firms – and is now working for one of them, Kimley-Horn.
“My happiness doesn’t really seem to just come from work,” she said. “I thought, ‘What else do I want to do, and how can I make my job a part of that pursuit?’”
That question led Stephens to explore a new course called Engineering Social Justice.
Engineering Systems and Environment Ph.D. candidate Bethany Gordon designed the course for UVA’s last January Term as part of the department’s response to students’ growing need to learn the social dimensions of engineering design alongside core technical skills and knowledge.
Four years ago, Gordon was is Stephens’ place – about to graduate with her bachelor’s in civil engineering from UVA and contemplating how she would use her degree to build a more equitable, just world. She chose research and teaching, becoming the first graduate fellow of UVA’s interdisciplinary Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative.
It wasn’t long before Gordon conceived the idea for the Engineering Social Justice course. She designed the syllabus in a UVA Center for Teaching Excellence workshop, focusing on helping students understand not only why, but how to make social justice part of their future engineering designs. The class debuted in the 2021 J-Term with 15 third- and fourth-year civil and systems engineering undergraduates, including Stephens. Gordon co-taught the project-based class with fellow Ph.D. student and teaching assistant Sadegh Eghdami.
“The course is between a technical civil or systems class and a science, technology and society class. We wanted it to be a practical tool for students to apply social justice,” Gordon said.
“Another thing was just the ability for students to think differently about what it means to be an expert and to have expertise. I think in other classes, their engineering identity is shaped by having an authoritative voice, and in this class, we focused a lot on listening to the community, and stepping back and that being a different source of professionalism.”
"Our focus is on advancing engineering systems to improve quality of life for people and communities, so it is essential we directly address social justice in our engineering courses."
Brian L. Smith, professor and chair, Engineering Systems and Environment
Students today have the desire to use their skills and positions to help people, said Copenhaver Associate Professor Leidy Klotz, Gordon’s advisor before and during the class.
“But in education, there is certainly a gap where social justice issues should be,” said Klotz, who co-founded and co-directs the Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative and holds joint faculty appointments in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and the School of Architecture.
“I think many engineering educators assume these issues are covered elsewhere, and it gives the impression that social justice is not the responsibility of engineering,” Klotz said. “This is why Bethany and Sadegh’s class, and others like it, are so important. By merging the social justice issues with engineering that created or can help address them, the course leaves no doubt the two are linked.”
That linkage is part of the ethos of Engineering Systems and Environment, professor and chair of the department Brian L. Smith said.
“Our focus is on advancing engineering systems to improve the quality of life for people and communities, so it is essential we directly address social justice in our engineering courses. We feel it is important to take a holistic perspective,” Smith said. “Bethany and Sadegh have shown our faculty how we can better incorporate social justice in our wide range of classes.”
Each student in the class chose a topic relating to civil, environmental or systems engineering and social justice, then narrowed the project down to a specific location. The students had to research the full social justice context of the engineering problem in the community, and propose a technical solution based on their previous training. Assigned readings, videos and guest speakers introduced them to principles of social justice to apply in their projects.
“A big thing for Bethany and me was to provide a safe environment for the students to speak, because the subject sometimes can be very sensitive,” Eghdami said. “It could be pretty tough at some moments, because they had different opinions.”
The point was for the students to practice talking about issues of race and privilege where saying the wrong thing won’t cost them a job or their reputation. Eghdami and Gordon wanted them to come away able to express informed opinions that they can respectfully debate with others.
“These conversations were a great way to bring about new ideas and really dig deep on different social justice issues,” said Ryan Barnett, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering in May. “I always came to class excited to learn what others had to say and hear others share their own experiences.”
Homing in on a project proved one of the more difficult aspects of the class for students, many of whom had no experience with the kind of injustice they were seeking to address.
Stephens, whose interest in environmental protection led her to civil engineering in the first place, figured she would augment her fourth-year thesis research.
“This led me to consider a local issue of how homeowners associations influence and affect green infrastructure implementation through neighborhood guidelines,” Stephens said. “However, I realized I was targeting a socioeconomic group I was already familiar with, and who arguably benefit the most from public infrastructure projects already – white, suburban neighborhoods.”
After a “night of intense Googling and YouTube scanning,” Stephens discovered widespread water contamination in the Navajo Nation caused by uranium mining. Struck that she’d never heard of the Navajo water issue before, the problem seemed right for the class.
“I had a range of ideas, but none that felt as if they would provide any benefit to the Navajo Nation,” Stephens said. “It is difficult thinking of solutions which do not impede upon the target community or overstep any cultural boundaries, especially when I was just beginning my education of who the Navajo are.”
"It is difficult thinking of engineering solutions which do not impede upon the target community or overstep any cultural boundaries."
Emma Stephens, B.S. civil engineering, 2021
She decided to look for a partner, and found a local indigenous-run nonprofit that oversees the Navajo Water Project. After consulting with the program’s director, Stephens proposed a kit to filter contaminants that can integrate with the solar-powered water systems already used by the Water Project to serve homes in need.
Barnett got the idea for his project while on a site visit for his fourth-year capstone, a study of pedestrian safety on a stretch of highway U.S. 1 through Richmond. He began to wonder what kind of access people in the nearby low-income neighborhoods had to public transportation. A native of Richmond’s wealthier west end, this was not something he’d thought much about before.
After much digging to narrow his topic, Barnett found a case study of the city’s bus routes. He identified neighborhoods that were not being adequately served, despite having the greatest need for bus transportation. Using systems engineering analysis techniques, Barnett proposed alternate bus routes to better reach the underserved communities.
“I enjoyed the project because it allowed me to take my new knowledge from the class and incorporate it into a real-life case study,” Barnett said. “It was cool to be able to come up with and develop our own projects. I would have liked to go further into my project by extending the class a little longer.”
Ryan Fruehwirth, a rising fourth-year civil engineering major from Potomac, Maryland, examined UVA’s role in creating and addressing Charlottesville’s housing crisis, which disproportionately affects minority communities. Fruehwirth opened his class presentation by noting he did not have all the answers. He has never known housing insecurity, and in a two-week class, he was not able to interview local residents or come close to untangling a complex problem that communities grapple with across the country.
Fruehwirth used a 2020 report from the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition documenting interviews with 129 residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods. His research also uncovered a history of racist urban planning policies and discriminatory zoning ordinances that led to the issues plaguing Charlottesville today, he said.
Fruehwirth laid the groundwork for his technical solution by showing maps of the Gospel Hill neighborhood – once home to many African American families – in 2016 and in 1966, when the University began buying land to expand the Health System.
“Over 50 years, UVA was basically able to erase this community off the map,” Fruehwirth said.
Looking for remedies to the housing shortage today, the Housing Coalition report found residents overwhelmingly prefer to stay in their communities, he said.
"I enjoyed the project because it allowed me to take my new knowledge from the class and incorporate it into a real-life case study."
Ryan Barnett, B.S. systems engineering, 2021
“Unsurprisingly, they value their relationships with local neighbors,” he said. “I felt that the University’s response of building 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units on land already owned by UVA may be problematic from a social justice lens unless they truly place the existing community at the forefront of their designs.”
Fruehwirth instead proposed the University consider implementing a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program, in which UVA would donate a percentage of its nonprofit property tax exemption to the Charlottesville community. Other colleges are successfully implementing similar programs in their communities, he said.
“I suggested UVA donate this payment to the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund, which is closely tied to the community, and in this way, would perhaps be a more socially just way to address the problem,” he said.
Fruehwirth’s project was not an abstract exercise. He plans to work in the land development industry.
“This really hit home that land developers have the ability to truly impact people,” Fruehwirth said. “I’m glad I was able to take this class in the J-Term, and hopefully, I will continue that perspective in the future.”