How Engineering can promote Social Justice — Dr. Alex Mejia
Friday, November 3, 2017
Engineering is a loaded term. While engineers help create and shape the world we live in, there are common misunderstandings about who they are and the work they do. Dr. Alex Mejia, assistant professor of General Engineering, works to break these misconceptions. Applying equity-oriented instructional strategies, Dr. Mejia uses engineering as a vehicle for social justice. He challenges young engineering students to be more culturally, economically, socially, and politically aware and considerate. Dr. Mejia acknowledges the existence of deficit models in education and strives to break barriers. Integrating critical race theory and culturally responsive pedagogies into engineering practices, Dr. Mejia empowers students to make lasting, collective impacts. Interested in learning more? Check out the interview below to learn more about how Dr. Mejia is making a powerful impact in the engineering profession!
What captured your imagination about teaching?
I worked in the engineering industry for a few years and had several internships. I worked for the Department of Defense at one point and also for FLSmidth, a Danish company. Part of my job when working for FLSmidth was to provide training and logistic support for different operations throughout the world. While working for this company, I went on a trip to Africa to implement a safety plan. While doing this I realized that the people there were not following what I was doing. They could not fill out standard safety forms and report incidents. I had to change the safety forms and make them color-coded to make it easier for the employees to report incidents. Later on, I found out that most of them were illiterate. It was eye opening to me. I felt awful. I then proposed to implement a type of literacy program for the company.
After my trip, I read the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I had never thought of going into engineering education, but after my experiences in Africa and reading this book I realized that I wanted to change the narrative in engineering. I started learning about the different inequities in the world and began to explore the education profession. I want to help educate engineers to be more socially and critically conscious about the world and the impact that they have as engineers in the world.
How do you integrate social justice into your classes?
Working with the aerospace and mining industry, I learned about how the things we do as engineers are political. We create political artifacts. I integrate social justice into my courses by bringing my experiences and the research that I do right now in education. Some of the things I try to talk about are things like, critical race theory and how we can use it to analyze problems and how we frame problems in engineering. It is important to ask the questions, “Who gets to use our products?” and “Who does it benefit?” Are we taking cultural considerations into what we do? What are we saying about what we do as engineers? I try to bring these analyses to the classroom. We talk about intersectionality, racism, and social identity theory. I try to emphasize in my class that the answer is not just technology. As engineers we also develop and improve processes.
When you first started connecting engineering and social justice for yourself, did you find pushback in the educational system?
Yes, mostly in engineering. I got my bachelors and masters in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering and Material Science, and my PhD is in Engineering Education. I started to talk about social justice issues in engineering but people didn’t want to hear about it because it was perceived as controversial. I learned a lot during my PhD program. I had to take several courses that are not traditionally taken in other PhD engineering programs – courses in Psychology, Education and Sociology. It helped a lot in broadening my views and I learned how to persist. I think engineers need to engage in those conversations. We need to acknowledge how engineering can create injustices, but also how engineering can promote social justice. I tell my students that they need to take advantage of the core classes that they have to take because it is going to help them become well-rounded engineers. I wish I had learned that during my formative years.
Have you found other like-minded professors?
There are a lot of professors that are like-minded, but there is still a lot of pushback. But, I think a lot of that has to do with the history of engineering itself. We have had this type of dominant discourse for so long that it is not going to change easily. There is still this idea of, “let me do my math, develop this technology.” Some engineers want to work within a little square and they don’t want to think about the implications associated with only creating technology. But, there is definitely a lot of people who think about the ethics of engineering and engineering and social justice.
What is the single most important thing you want students to know?
I want to continue my work with the Latin community. Especially with the ELL, English Language Learners, because they are the most underrepresented in STEM. I want to continue that research and empower them and other underrepresented minorities. And, for my students in general, I want my courses to help them to develop critical consciousness. I believe that if we want to make a change it is not going to happen just because of one person. I believe in collective impact and if we aren’t able to create that, then nothing is going to happen. The work that I do challenges the deficit-thinking model in schools, and that is what I want to accomplish. I want others to acknowledge that students of color are holders and creators of knowledge who bring a lot to the table. We need their perspectives.
In what ways are you trying to accomplish collective impact? How are you role-modeling this idea in the classroom?
I think the course is challenging for students. We talk about things that we don’t usually mention in engineering courses. I have students go to a community and work with them, not to solve a problem, but to learn about the community. The community is supposed to be the driver of this force. I see my students as facilitators, not as people who are going to impose something onto the community. My goal is for students to learn about the community and work with them. For me, that is part of the collective impact. Students are very challenged. They want to have this eye of “the expert” and just jump in and teach the community or build something for them. Students don’t realize that communities have been thriving for so long. We talk about privilege and I try to debrief them so that they understand the concepts I am trying to convey.
How can higher education do better?
Something that I always fight with and I see constantly in higher education is the portrayal of underrepresented minorities and women as not having support from their families, or highlighting their obstacles and their weaknesses. A lot of deficit-based mentality. I read articles talking about what all these people don't have instead of looking at what they do have. I think that a more asset-based approach to education will be very beneficial. We need to learn from the students and understand how to be more culturally responsive. I would like to see research that says things like, “Latinos bring all this knowledge to STEM!” Similarly, women and people of color have a history of discrimination in engineering, but they have so many skills and practices that are similar to engineering, yet we don’t recognize it as engineering. All of them bring a lot knowledge, skills, and practices to the table that needs to be recognized.
— Interview by Nadia Nguyen, Sophomore, Communication Studies
begin quoteWe need to acknowledge how engineering can create injustices, but also how engineering can promote social justice.