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An impact-centered approach to higher education: engineering as a model

13 juillet 2022 | Lecture de 7 min

Par Gilda A. Barabino, PhD

Quote by Gilda Barabino

We’re transforming engineering education by applying a framework of activism, where students consider the impact their work will have on society

In this month's Not Alone newsletter, Prof Gilda A Barabino, President of Olin College of Engineering, writes about how her college is transforming engineering education through projects that encourage students to focus on the social impact of their work.

Considering the global state of affairs, we need meaningful and lasting change that can address life-threatening challenges facing humans and the planet. Among those challenges are the ever-increasing equity gaps for marginalized groups in comparison with the majority in areas ranging from education to economics, health and wellbeing.

Education can serve as an equalizer and provide opportunities for the educated to solve pressing problems and effect change — yet higher education faces its own challenges related to relevance, accessibility and financial sustainability.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

As a discipline that is problem-solving by nature, engineering is both well suited to address these challenges and morally responsible for making a difference that will make the world a better place for all its citizens. I argue that engineering education, research and practice could be up to the task and serve as a model for other fields if viewed and conducted using a values-driven impact-centered approach undergirded by empathy, ethics and equity and fueled by activism.

To meet its activist task, engineering must shift in the direction of impact-centered education: education that instills an equity ethic in students as it prepares them for impact, and also fully engages students in creating authentic game-changing impact that will improve our world. At the center of impact-centered education is the idea that every graduate has had multiple experiences that authentically focus on doing something that matters to someone outside of their institution and doing so in a way that is authentically focused on making an impact. This approach develops a graduate’s identity as someone who can create value in the world and who has the responsibility to do so. At the center of impact-centered engineering is learning by doing and doing in the service of humanity.

Applying a framework of activism as a path to impact-centered education has the advantages of signaling an action-oriented stance, being values-driven, focusing on societal impact with emphasis on one’s public good mission, and making connections between technical and social dimensions of the disciplinary fields. It also has the advantage of serving as a mechanism to attract and retain members of historically excluded groups like racial minorities and women by providing a path to careers relevant to their everyday lives and congruent with their desire to give back to their communities and have societal impact.

In their 2017 paper “The Equity Ethic: Black and Latinx College Students Reengineering their STEM Careers Toward JusticeS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre,” Ebony McGee and Lydia Bentley demonstrate a greater concern for social justice and addressing inequity held by underrepresented minority (URM) students in comparison with non-URM students. They describe an equity ethic expressed through collectivism, i.e., prioritization of group goals over individual goals, or through altruism, i.e., focus on benefitting another person who is not necessarily a member of one’s own in-group. Not drawing on activism as a means to attract and retain members of underrepresented minorities remains a lost opportunity.

Another lost opportunity is our failure to acknowledge the political nature and social dimensions of our field — insistence on the ability to separate technical from social in defining and solving problems, what some refer to as technical-social dualism. Darshan Karwat and colleagues address this conundrum by introducing the concept of activist engineeringS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre. They define an activist engineer as one who is capable of going beyond the technical problem at hand to ask the question, “What is the real problem and does this problem ‘require’ an engineering intervention?” Probing further, it’s incumbent upon the profession to ask, “Who are engineers, and who gets to become an engineer? Who do engineers and engineering serve? And what constitutes the ethical and responsible practice of engineering?”

Transforming engineering education by focusing on social impact

Olin CollegeS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, where I serve as president, was established to transform engineering education. We have been doing so by intentionally focusing on design, teamwork, and interdisciplinary project-based learning to solve real-world problems — and importantly, instilling a willingness to try something new and learn from it. Currently, we are actively pursuing impact-centered education as the future direction for engineering education. We recognize that if students are to develop as systems thinkers and problem solvers, and if students are to appreciate different disciplinary lenses and connect and transcend individual disciplines, our curriculum needs to align the technical and social dimensions of engineering.

With impact-centered education in mind, one of our newest courses, Social Technology Enterprise with PurposeS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, or STEP, seeks to revolutionize how students learn and make. Students and faculty work together as teammates, with students taking ownership of their work guided by faculty who serve as co-creators and learn along with the students. The recent project combined user-centered design, wearable computing and machine learning to create enhanced technology to impact the lives of blind and visually impaired persons. Students were drawn to the class for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a desire to have impact by improving the lives of others.

In another well established, but constantly evolving course, Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE)S’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, students contribute to the development of life-changing technologies and social ventures in underserved communities and low-resourced environments. As members of cross-functional teams, students identify real problems and unmet needs within the communities they intend to serve and iteratively engage community stakeholders in prototyping designs.

  • In one impact project based in Ghana, “QueenTech,” students collaborate with women on the design of post-harvest food-processing machines to address gender inequality in Ghanaian agriculture. With the machines, women are better able to reduce their burden and grow small businesses.

  • Another impact project, “Shifting Rhythms,” is based in Mississippi and involves a collaboration between students and local educators to co-develop a hands-on curriculum for 9-to-15-year-olds.

These projects illustrate ADE’s motto and what should be a cornerstone of impact-centered education: “Learning to have impact by working to have impact.

When ethical design requires design refusal

While Olin fiercely embraces engineering for societal impact, it also fiercely embraces the need for ethical and responsible design that goes beyond technology for technology’s sake and minimizes harm and unintended consequences. Focusing on people rather than things, and employing the concept of design refusal, Olin students recently opted out of a project when they determined that it could be harmful to those it was intended to serve. The students were working with a nonprofit to combat human trafficking using a web-scraping tool. When the students realized that the tool they were developing had the potential to target and harm vulnerable groupsS’ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre, consistent with their values, they refused to design the tool. The ability to opt out and move away from the default of designing because you can requires a level of social competency that should be required of all engineering students.


Moving toward impact-centered education will require creating and sustaining conditions for thinking and doing in a values-driven culture of collective activism for the greater good, shifting from a focus on individualism. It will require inclusive innovation and design that values diverse identities, perspectives and lived experiences. It will embody a culture where everyone is an empathetic learner and educator committed to an equity ethic and a purpose greater than serving oneself — serving humanity. The frameworks presented herein, along with the examples of impact-centered engineering, provide insights for a way forward with significant implications for equalizing opportunities and solving complex global societal challenges by focusing on impact.