ASCE to Discuss Engineering Issues on a Global Stage

August 4, 2018
London plays host to the 2018 Global Engineering Congress in October.

The topics – sustainability, climate change, inclusion – are so big they demand a global conversation.

The 2018 Global Engineering Congress will provide the venue.

Slated for Oct. 20-26 in London, the GEC is hosted by the Institution of Civil Engineers UK, with ASCE as one of the primary organizing societies.

The program of speakers features some of the most renowned engineers in the world. Among them are several ASCE leaders, including 2019 President Robin Kemper, 2019 President-Elect Guna Gunalan, Technical Region Director Carol Ellinger Haddock, and Yvette Pearson, vice-chair of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

Pearson, the associate dean for accreditation, assessment, and strategic initiatives in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University, talked with ASCE News about the key ideas on sustainability and inclusion she will discuss.


ASCE News: So walk us through a little bit of what you will be presenting at the Global Engineering Congress.

Yvette Pearson: The topic is Advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Through Inclusive Engineering Education.

It ties together some of the work I’ve been engaged in, sustainability and inclusion, starting with the UN’s sustainable development goals and the five pillars they are founded on – people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnerships.

There are several sustainable development goals that typically don’t necessarily rise to the top of the radar when engineers look at their roles. For instance, the first goal is zero poverty. As civil engineers, we might gravitate toward goals like sustainable cities and communities, thinking “That’s the goal we have something to do with.” Or the goals related to water and energy use. Which is great. We do provide leadership in those areas.

But we certainly have a role to play in eradicating poverty, as well. We also have a role to play in eradicating hunger, in ensuring gender equality, in ensuring equitable education.

So what I’ve done in the past is try to point the conversation toward those things – try to stretch our thinking about what roles we play and at what levels.

ASCE News: And that ties in to your role as an educator, right?

Pearson: Yes, there are a lot of opportunities to really work on getting diverse perspectives involved in problem solving related to the SDGs. And the SDGs can be used to really show the human element that has far too long been disconnected from the work we do as engineers, which can help recruit more diverse people to engineering disciplines.

The Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET recently published criteria changes for the 2019 cycle. And some of the changes in criteria I think provide a great opportunity for us to create a lot more inclusiveness in the way that we teach our students to practice engineering.

For instance, previously, one of the student outcomes required students to function on multi-disciplinary teams. And now ABET is defining a team as a group of two or more people with diverse perspectives and diverse experiences that work together to solve a problem in an inclusive manner. And I’m not quoting that exactly, but you get the idea.

Typically, from the civil engineering side of things, we’d say, “OK, we have a structural engineer, we have an environmental engineer, we have a transportation engineer. That’s a multi-disciplinary team.”

Whereas when you look at it more broadly with this new definition, you can say maybe that means bringing in a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, it might mean bringing in a social scientist, or somebody from policy. It hopefully would mean bringing in people from different socio-economic backgrounds, different races, ethnicities, genders, and people with visible and invisible disabilities.

The other piece is in redefining the design constraints. The example design constraints have been expanded to include accessibility, usability, ergonomics, and things of that nature.

This gives us a great opportunity to inform our students about the principles of universal design, so that we’re teaching our students to think about the broadest cross section of people possible when they’re designing.

ASCE News: These are very big ideas. Is it daunting trying to bring about such big changes from one classroom?

Pearson: Well, it’s much like what we’ve seen over the past 15 years or so when we really started to see a strong push toward incorporating principles of sustainability in the classroom.

I know when I was coming through school more years ago than I want to admit [laughs], the thing that was emphasized to us was economic analysis. You have to look at your alternatives and your life-cycle costs, and so forth. In much the same way, a bit more than a decade ago, the emphasis shifted toward sustainability in the curriculum. However, in many engineering curricula, the focus was on the “planet” and “profit” pillars more than on the “people”.

So now, it’s the inclusion piece. I would like to see more of a shift toward that, more toward user-centered, universal design.

As far as it being daunting, I think the sustainable development goals are very lofty, but each goal has some very specific targets.

No single group is going revolutionize the world doing things at their level, but the idea is if you get enough of these groups working together on the local level, eventually it will result in global change.

So that’s the kind of approach I recommend when teaching students. Look at what the goals and targets are; look at how you can incorporate some of these things into your design; and start there.

And I think we as educators who have been doing this for a long time, sometimes we just get into this mode of “I’ve got my notes, this is what I’ve taught for the last 20 years.” I think we need to step away from that and ask, “How is our world changing and how are we preparing our students for our changing world?”

It takes time. It takes effort. But I think it’s worthwhile, and we’re going to be the better for it in the long run.

Learn more about the GEC and how you can attend at ICE’s website.

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