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date: 06 December 2023

Engineering Education and Social Justicefree

Engineering Education and Social Justicefree

  • Jon A. Leydens, Jon A. LeydensHumanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Colorado School of Mines
  • Juan C. LucenaJuan C. LucenaEngineering, Design and Society, Colorado School of Mines
  •  and Donna M. RileyDonna M. RileyEngineering Education, Purdue University


Engineering education and social (in)justice are connected in complex ways. Research indicates that while issues of social (in)justice are inherent in engineering practice, they are often invisible in engineering education. The mechanism by which social justice is rendered invisible involves mindsets and ideologies in engineering and engineering education. Hence, innovative strategies and practices need to address these mindsets and ideologies, rendering social justice visible in engineering education. Imagined future scenarios for social justice in engineering education indicate how social justice could be readily marginalized or accentuated, with accompanying detriments or benefits.


  • Educational Purposes and Ideals
  • Education and Society
  • Technology and Education

Overview of Engineering Education and Social Justice

In what ways are engineering education and social (in)justice connected? To address that question, this article features four main sections. After a brief positionality statement, the section “Social Justice as Inherent in Engineering (Education)” reviews research on why social (in)justice is inherent in the engineering profession and heavily implied in definitions of key terms. The section “How Mindsets and Ideologies in Engineering Can Render Social Justice Invisible in Engineering Education” provides research background on why, despite being inherent in professional engineering, social (in)justice is often invisible in engineering education; the mechanism by which social justice is rendered invisible involves mindsets and ideologies in engineering. Since social justice is inherent yet often invisible in engineering education, the section “Strategies for Rendering Social Justice Visible in Engineering Education and Addressing Mindsets and Ideologies” showcases innovative strategies and practices to address those mindsets and ideologies, rendering social justice visible for students and faculty in engineering education. The article concludes with imagined future scenarios for social justice in engineering education.


One crucial component of social justice work is critical self-analysis, an ongoing process of reflection and honest self-inquiry into means, ends, and consequences of actions (Nieusma, 2013; Valderamma Pineda et al., 2012). In the spirit of self-analysis, the authors of this article acknowledge some of the ways in which our positionality shapes our authorial perspectives, content choices, and more (Secules et al., 2021). For instance, due to where we work and practice engineering for social justice, we likely have a predominantly North American (esp. U.S.) perspective on social justice in the context of engineering education. Thus, our positionality, biases, and experiences will likely lead us to foreground our own scholarship and the North American and especially the U.S. context in which we are situated. That is, we write in terms of what we know best, but that also means that non-U.S. perspectives on social justice in engineering education are quite underrepresented here. Furthermore, other aspects of our positionality—gender, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, and other factors—shape what issues and content we choose (not) to include, and how we frame them. The authors of this entry have multiple engineering and advanced degrees and have spent the majority of their professional careers investigating the engineering–society nexus and its implications for engineering education. In that sense, the authors are committed to educating the whole person and not just preparing students for future careers in engineering. Furthermore, one of the authors identifies as a former first-generation college student, another as Mestizo/Latino, and another as part of the LGBTQIA community. These and other social identities, along with lived experiences linked to such identities, inevitably shape our framing of who is centered in and who is marginalized from engineering education. It is important to also acknowledge that many programs, institutions, and individuals are doing social justice-related work in engineering education, but without the formal nomenclature, while others use different terms (equity, humanitarian engineering, etc.). Those perspectives are not represented here.

Social Justice as Inherent in Engineering (Education)

A common approach among most engineering educators is to regard the engineering profession as one in which purely or almost entirely technical decisions are made about technical artifacts (Cech, 2013, 2014; Faulkner, 2000, 2007; Teschler, 2010). The passive voice in the previous sentence glosses over the reality that such decisions are made by people, and that the decisions engineers make are not exclusively technical in nature. The inherent nature of social (in)justice in engineering as a profession becomes clear in reviewing three lines of relevant research.

By People and for People

First, as a profession, engineering is public-facing, is client-centered, and generally involves people solving problems for people (Stevens et al., 2014; Trevelyan, 2014). As Downey and colleagues have noted, “engineering problems do not solve themselves; they are always solved by people. Once people are introduced to the problem-solving situation, it takes on human as well as technical dimensions” (Downey et al., 2006, p. 109). Since people are shaped by the outcomes of engineering designs, services, and more, the nature of the profession means stakeholder engagement is crucial to the completion of many engineering projects. Meaningful stakeholder engagement often requires not just a financial viability and legal license but also a social license to operate, involving negotiation and eventual acceptance (or rejection) by groups impacted by the projects (Davis & Franks, 2014; Lima & Oakes, 2013; Lucena et al., 2010; Rulifson & Smith, 2021). Engineering designs, products, and services are intended to benefit society, yet often benefit some and not others, or benefit some more than others (Cech, 2013, 2014; Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Riley, 2008). Engineers design technological products and services for specific purposes; it matters who has influence in defining those purposes, identifying and scoping which problems are to be solved. Since the technologies that engineers design exist in social contexts, a mutually shaping dynamic occurs: the social contexts shape technologies and vice versa (Bijker et al., 1987; Latour, 2005; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Wajcman, 2016). The inherent social justice dimensions in engineering problems reveal themselves when we respond to crucial questions about engineering technologies:

From such technologies, who benefits? Who suffers? Whose opportunities and resources are and are not augmented? Whose risks and harms are and are not decreased? Whose human capabilities are and are not enhanced—and, according to whom? Such questions eschew the stance that positions engineers as technology designers who are in no way responsible for how their technologies are used.

Exploring answers to these questions reveals inherent social justice dimensions. For instance, combustion engine vehicles have reaped both tremendous benefits (e.g., in terms of transportation and commerce; financial opportunities for users; and supporting adjacent industries such as petroleum, rubber, vehicle manufacturing, and others). Such vehicles have also brought significant harms (e.g., significant contributions to climate change and deleterious effects on public health). Taking such a both/and approach to technological impacts yields insight into how technologies designed by and for humans can both promote and detract from social justice.

Context Is a Constant

A second line of research on social justice and engineering foregrounds the importance of social context (Bijker et al., 1987; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999). Engineers design technologies not in a vacuum but in social contexts that shape and are shaped by such technologies. The presence of combustion engine vehicles and relatively inexpensive fuels have, for instance, facilitated both the transport of goods and services for residential and commercial use as well as urban sprawl in the United States and increased carbon emissions (Schoenberger, 2015). Furthermore, questions regarding who benefits and who suffers from technologies challenge assumptions about technology as socioculturally and politically neutral. Such challenges are affirmed by Science, Technology, and Society case studies, which have shown how technology can, intentionally or unintentionally, serve deleterious ends. The bridges of Robert Moses between New York City and Long Island serve as one example, despite some interpretive opposition (Joerges, 1999). Moses was the “master builder of roads, parks, bridges, and other public works from the 1920s to the 1970s in New York,” and he “had these overpasses built to specification that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways” (Winner, 1980, p. 123). Making the overpasses so low that buses could not pass was seen as a mechanism by which to exclude New York City’s poorer residents (who were less likely to own their own vehicles) from accessing the beaches and parks on Long Island (Winner, 1980). Yet even in less clearly intentional cases, technology has disproportionate effects on different groups. For instance, research on environmental racism acknowledges that low-income people of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution and/or emissions in the air, water, and soil (Benz, 2019; Bullard, 1993; Bullard et al., 2004; Corburn, 2005).

From Contextual to Sociotechnical Practices

A third line of related research leverages the other two lines of research as motivation for providing social context to engineering students as a complement to the heavy dose of decontextualized problems they currently encounter in the engineering curriculum (Kleine et al., 2021; Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Riley, 2008). Decontextualized problems serve a purpose in the curriculum by helping students focus on the technical dimensions of a problem, by being—or seeming—easier to grade, and by introducing and providing practice with relevant engineering principles (Leydens & Lucena, 2018). However, these same kinds of problems, via repeated exposure, also send the message to students that engineering problems are exclusively or largely technical problems instead of sociotechnical ones. Sociotechnical here refers to the interplay between the social and the technical dimensions of engineering problems (Leydens et al., 2018). For instance, in a Feedback Control Systems course, interviewed third- and fourth-year engineering students, including those earning good grades, admitted that they did not know exactly what a feedback control system was, in part because the course problems were mostly mathematical and theoretical, removed from real-world applications (Leydens & Lucena, 2018). Thus, faculty accentuating connections between social (in)justice and engineering education are deviating from the banking model of education. In that model, the instructor deposits ideas and content, and the students serve as depositories who are expected to regurgitate their deposits on exams and problem sets (Freire, 1993; Leydens & Lucena, 2018). Instead, a more productive model involves some decontextualized as well as contextualized, real-world problem solving so students recognize the dynamic interplays between the social and the technical aspects of problems they solve (Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Leydens et al., 2018). This more productive model helps address the mismatch between the sociotechnical nature of problem solving in engineering practice (Cech, 2013, 2014; Faulkner, 2000, 2007; Stevens et al., 2014; Trevelyan, 2014), and the decontextualized manner in which engineering students are often educated (Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Riley, 2008).

Definitions of Key Terms

Hence, social (in)justice has always been inherent in engineering practice. To better understand tensions between those who recognize or ignore the inherent nature of social (in)justice in engineering, definitions of social justice, engineering, engineering education, and engineering for social justice are warranted, followed by descriptions of mindsets and ideologies in engineering.

Social Justice

The term social justice has a long history in multiple intellectual and activist traditions, and a full genealogy of the term is well beyond the scope of this article. Riley (2008) provides an overview of several interconnected and sometimes contradictory streams, noting that “mutability and multiplicity are in fact key characteristics of social justice” (p. 1).

Because social justice movements attend carefully to power relations, a central question must be who has authority to define social justice. Academics recognize their own privileged positionality in this, and seek, albeit imperfectly, to offer definitions of social justice arising from the experiences of those struggling against injustice. Each definition bears its own specific positionality and subjectivity, bound by time and place. After reviewing definitions provided by individual movement leaders, Riley (2008) summarized common themes to include “the struggle to end different kinds of oppression, to create economic equality, to uphold human rights or dignity, and to restore right relationships among all people and the environment” (p. 4). Most definitions stemming from lived struggles against injustice will seem on their surface to be incongruous with engineering—which leads us to the equally thorny challenge of defining engineering.


Riley (2008) notes that the term engineering also has a long and contested history, with first uses in English in the 14th century referring to design and/or construction of military artifacts, evolving in the 19th and early 20th centuries to Tredgold’s (1828) often-quoted “art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man” (Mitcham, 1998, p. 44). Twenty-first-century definitions show a further evolution: “the application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design, manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2016). That this latter definition is U.S.-centric becomes clear in contrast to definitions of engineering from other cultures (Downey et al., 2007).

Engineering Education

Engineering education broadly describes the processes by which engineers are formed (Downey, 2014) and through which they come to know and experience what engineering is. Because engineers play such a central role in shaping sociotechnical systems, from our built environment to communications infrastructure to the pace and feel of our workplaces, it matters a great deal how engineers are formed—what principles become central to their professional practice, what standards they follow, and what moral imagination they bring to their work. In this way, engineering education is a dynamic space where educators and thought leaders wrangle over what capacities engineers need and how best to develop those in future professionals. Since the creation of the U.S. Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education in 1893, the precursor to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) (American Society for Engineering Education, 2021), engineering education has been a space for key struggles for social justice. For example, engineering studies scholars have shown how engineering education has historically excluded women through different institutional, curricular, and discursive practices and how women have had to struggle for their inclusion (Bix, 2014), or how institutional pathways between four-year engineering schools and trade schools were drawn along racialized lines in Illinois (Slaton, 2010), or how engineering education alignment with corporate and military interests have shaped problems and research undertaken by engineers at the expense of those serving disempowered communities (Noble, 1977; Wisnioski, 2012). In spite of engineering education’s historical alignment with corporate, military, and male-dominated interests, there are now important places for scholarly exchange and political activism inside of ASEE, such as the Liberal Education/Engineering and Society (LEES) Division and the Equity, Cultural & Social Justice in Education Constituent Committee.

Engineering Education for Social Justice

In the last 20 years, a group of engineering educators has developed a line of scholarship focusing renewed attention on linking engineering and social justice (Baillie, 2009; Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Nieusma, 2013; Riley, 2008). Reviving prior traditions from the Progressive Era (Lucena, 2010) and the 1960s (Wisnioski, 2012), the movement for connecting engineering with social justice and peace comprises multiple overlapping communities (Arif et al., 2021; Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Nieusma, 2013).

Leydens and Lucena define engineering for social justice as “engineering practices that strive to enhance human capabilities (ends) through an equitable distribution of opportunities and resources while reducing imposed risks and harms (means) among agentic citizens of a specific community or communities” (Leydens & Lucena, 2018, p. 15, emphases in original). This definition draws from the work of others from multiple disciplines (Barry, 2005; Capeheart & Milovanovic, 2007; Nussbaum, 2001, 2007, 2011). While they acknowledge the limitations of this definition, they also accentuate its potential to foreground listening contextually, identifying social structural conditions, increasing opportunities and resources, and more (Leydens & Lucena, 2018).

This conversation about engineering education for social justice draws in and builds upon broader scholarship on education for social justice, including critical pedagogies (e.g., antiracist, feminist, queer, and decolonizing pedagogies) (Darder et al., 2017; Freire, 1993; hooks, 1994), culturally inclusive or responsive pedagogies (Gay, 2018; Ladson-Billings, 1995), and critiques of unjust education structures (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Giroux, 2014; Gramsci & Forgacs, 2000; la paperson, 2017; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2010). Additionally, this article draws on, and is in solidarity with, those connecting with social justice across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines (e.g., Barton et al., 2003; Berry et al., 2020; “Science for the People,” 2021).

Synthesis of Key Terms

Tensions between those who recognize or ignore the inherent nature of social (in)justice in engineering emerge in the definitions provided in this section. For instance, such tensions emerge in definitions of engineering as grounded historically in the military, particularly as some engineers see engineering as a crucial vehicle for peace (Blue et al., 2014; Wisnioski, 2012), including members of the Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Network (Nieusma, 2013). Also, Tredgold’s 1828 definition of engineering accentuates the separation of humans and nature (Mitcham, 1998), which reveals Western and colonizing biases present in conventional definitions of engineering, especially when we realize that separating humans from nature is inconceivable in Māori and many other indigenous cultures (Leydens et al., 2017). The 21st-century definition of engineering noted in the subsection “Definitions of Key Terms: Engineering” raises important questions about—among others—the environmental and societal costs from efficiency and cost savings—and who does or does not benefit. In that sense, the tension between a technical and a sociotechnical approach to engineering is embedded in the definitions of engineering and the questions they elicit. Additionally, the definition of engineering education highlights the importance of focusing on how engineers are formed—what principles become central to their professional practice, what standards they follow, and what moral imagination they bring to their work. Thus, ethics, cultural values, and other aspects that interface with social contexts become vital to an engineering education. Furthermore, it is not consistent as a sociotechnical approach to, on the one hand, maintain that engineering is a force for social good, while, on the other, deny that engineering can be a force for social inequity and injustice.

If social (in)justice has always been inherent in engineering practice, why has it for so long been largely invisible in engineering education? The inherent nature of social justice in engineering education has been rendered consistently visible and explicit only in the 21st century (Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Nieusma, 2013). What factors kept discussions of social (in)justice at bay? To answer that question, we need to explore mindsets and ideologies in engineering.

How Mindsets and Ideologies in Engineering Can Render Social Justice Invisible in Engineering Education

Whereas other professions such as law and medicine have long social justice traditions and practices (such as pro bono work), social justice practices have historically been relatively less developed in engineering (Riley, 2008). In engineering education and practice, particular mindsets and ideologies act to keep social justice at arm’s length—or to dismiss social justice as irrelevant to effective engineering. Understanding these mindsets and ideologies is crucial to recognizing why resistance or acceptance of social justice occurs.

Mindsets in Engineering

Riley’s work on mindsets in engineering contexts helps contextualize why, particularly in the United States, social justice has been depicted as detached from engineering (Riley, 2008). Four mindsets in particular serve as obstacles to realizing how social justice is already inherent in the work that engineers do and to making social justice (more) visible in engineering education.

First, positivism and the myth of objectivity is a foundational mindset in engineering (Riley, 2008). Positivists think that all justifiable assertions can be scientifically or mathematically verified or proven. Within the context of undergraduate engineering education, students can interpret the direct and indirect messages of the curriculum to signify that the scientific and/or mathematical way of knowing is the only legitimate way of knowing. In so doing, they can dismiss as illegitimate (or at least less valid) other ways of knowing, including ways that may be more apt for particular problems. For instance, measuring the quantity of methane escaping from a wellhead requires a different problem-solving approach than assessing local community stakeholder perceptions of a hydraulic fracturing operation. Since such stakeholder perceptions tend to be varied, dynamic, and subject to multiple influences (mass media, community leaders, rumors, etc.), they require a social scientific approach that differs significantly from methane measurement.

Second, engineers may define the scope of their work within a narrow technical focus. Such a focus can make the problem more readily quantifiable and solvable. Yet it also introduces other nuances. To extend the previous example, engineers trained to think that only scientifically verified assertions are worth knowing may be quite willing to measure methane output, but unwilling to explore how to engage community members and build trust, as those require alternate ways of knowing and being. This tendency to dismiss issues outside a strict technical focus may be exacerbated by the quantity of the engineering curriculum devoted to analytic vs. critical thinking. As Riley has noted,

generally, engineering students learn to think analytically only in certain ways appropriate to technical analysis. . . . We typically do not come away with the ability to think critically, to question what is given, or question the validity of our assumptions. . . . For this reason, we often cannot see the larger context of the problem we are working.

(Riley, 2008, p. 41)

Effective stakeholder engagement can save companies significant expense by avoiding costly project delays and cancellations (Davis & Franks, 2014). However, such cost savings will occur only when engineers see stakeholder engagement as just as much a part of engineering practice as methane measurement. That shift entails transcending positivism and the myth of objectivity as well as adopting a broader sociotechnical focus.

Third, most North American engineers have limited career pathways, due to the centrality of military and corporate organizations, the main employers of engineers. Within such organizations, particular values tend to predominate: hierarchy, efficiency, a penchant for precedent, and others (Riley, 2008). Organizational contexts in which time-as-money is prioritized are likely to “rely on tradition and precedent in determining what they should do in the present and future. This makes the profession resistant to change” (Riley, 2008, p. 40). Reliance on tradition can also marginalize the inherent social dimensions of engineering problems if previous engineers have similarly excluded or downplayed the significance of such dimensions in prior work.

Finally, the collective effect of an engineering education that privileges positivism and defines problems in narrow technical terms, especially when those values are reinforced within organizations in which engineers work, is to develop an uncritical acceptance of authority. Such acceptance emerges from

a positivist mindset that sticks with the scientific method as the only way of knowing what we know, combined with a lack of exposure to other ways of knowing, or contexts in which those other ways of knowing are valued[. This mindset] can lead to a lack of questioning of certain types of information.

(Riley, 2008, p. 42)

For instance, uncritical acceptance of authority may lead engineers to not question the ethical dimensions of externalities, such as environmental remediation not required by law that is positioned as external to a company’s project budget. A habit of not questioning authority can also leave engineers ignorant of the vagaries of power, which become visible when we explore “what questions are considered fundable, what research is pursued and later published, and how entire fields of inquiry are established and supported or left unfunded and floundering” (Riley, 2008, pp. 41–42). That same habit can lead engineers to claim neutrality or take an apolitical stance and thus remain on the sidelines when the government suppresses or distorts scientific information (Shulman, 2006). It can also leave them silenced when companies they work for suppress and/or distort scientific information, as did the tobacco industry in the case of secondhand smoke and the petroleum industry in the case of climate change (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).

Collectively, these mindsets in engineering skew the attention of engineers away from—or worse, leave them oblivious to—the inherent social dimensions of their work and from the interplay between the social and technical dimensions of engineering problems. Such separation of the social and technical can leave them more susceptible to the illusion of neutrality: “When science is seen as objective, technology itself is seen as neutral (and often ahistorical), disregarding the social forces that demand certain forms of technology or pose certain questions” (Riley, 2008, p. 42).

That same uncritical acceptance can leave engineers unaware of why engineering education (along with other STEM tracks in higher education) has become a space that remains unquestioned. In the last 20 years, most state institutions of higher education have been largely defunded, rendering them increasingly dependent on student tuition and private sector funding sources such as donors and research funding (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2010). In today’s higher educational landscape, engineering is seen as profitable in part due to the ability of STEM majors to benefit from private-sector internships, research funding opportunities, and more. In such a landscape, the relationship between engineering education and industry and/or defense funding becomes taken for granted, and uncritically accepted (Carrigan & Bardini, 2021). Hence, any narrative that accentuates the social justice dimensions of engineering can be cast as radical or antithetical to the supposedly neutral aims of developing innovative technologies.

Ideologies in Engineering

Cech’s (2013, 2014) work on engineering ideologies complements and extends Riley’s (2008) work on mindsets. Cech (2013, 2014) has identified three primary engineering ideologies: technical/social dualism, depoliticization, and meritocracy.

One of the three ideological pillars of engineering is technical/social dualism, which involves conceiving the technical and social dimensions of engineering problems as separate and separable. Cech (2013) points to decades of Science and Technology Studies research indicating that engineers often assume technical/social dualism when the social and technical dimensions of problems are actually interrelated (Bijker et al., 1987; Faulkner, 2000, 2007; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999). Such dualism comes with important consequences: “The prominence of the [ideology of] technical/social dualism means that the most valued realms of engineering work are those that allow engineers to bracket social considerations most extensively” (Cech, 2014, p. 48). In such valuations, engineers create and reinforce an artificial hierarchy: technical work is valued most, and all else thereafter. Such valuations resonate in undergraduate engineering education, which implicitly and explicitly privileges the technical and marginalizes social dimensions (Leydens & Lucena, 2018). In contrast to technical/social dualism, the term sociotechnical is used in engineering education research to accentuate the interplay between the social and technical dimensions of engineering problems (Leydens et al., 2018, 2021).

One reason the technical and social dimensions supposedly need to be kept separate is to detach “clean” technical work from “messy” sociopolitical issues, which is related to the second ideological pillar, depoliticization (Cech, 2013, 2014). If engineers assume that technological artifacts are neutral, asocial, and apolitical, “carried out objectively and without bias,” engineers can dismiss social and political implications of their work by deferring “to the objectivity and value neutrality that are assumed to be part of these methods” (Cech, 2013, pp. 70–71). Missing from the assumptions undergirding depoliticization are the evidence-based notions that

even the most seemingly objective and neutral realms of engineering practice and design have built into them social norms, culturally informed judgements about what counts as “truth,” and ideologically infused processes of problem definition and solution (e.g., see Knorr-Cetina, 1999; Latour & Woolgar, 1986; Mackenzie, 1990; Traweek, 1988).

(Cech, 2013, p. 71)

Beyond technical/social dualism and depoliticization, a third common ideology that keeps social justice work marginalized from engineering education and practice is meritocracy (Cech, 2013, 2014). Particularly prevalent in the United States and in the engineering profession, a meritocratic belief holds that “success in life is the result of individual talent, training, and motivation, and that those who lack such characteristics will naturally be less successful than others” (Cech, 2013, p. 73). If meritocracy aptly described how sociocultural and economic systems actually functioned, engineers would consider themselves exempt from having to consider the social (justice) dimensions of their work, since sociocultural and economic systems are assumed to promote equity and justice. Social justice would then be nothing more than an unwelcome intrusion upon engineering practice, likely propagated by those with an ideological agenda. However, significant evidence exists that meritocracy is not how such systems function (Cech, 2013; McNamee & Miller, 2014). Consider how the English language has multiple non-merit factors built into common adages:

it takes money to make money (inheritance); it’s not what you know but whom you know (connections); what matters is being in the right place at the right time (luck); the playing field isn’t level (discrimination); and he or she married into money (marriage).

Each of the five aforementioned non-merit factors and others influence how inequality can be reproduced from one generation to another, shaping opportunities for social mobility and more (Grusky, 2014; McNamee & Miller, 2014).

Combined, the mindsets and ideologies function to keep social justice at a distance from engineering education and practice. That distance raises the question of how to challenge the mindsets and ideologies.

Strategies for Rendering Social Justice Visible in Engineering Education and Addressing Mindsets and Ideologies

That the mindsets and ideologies can render social justice issues invisible, obscuring how social (in)justice is inherent in engineering and engineering education, begs a key question: What are effective strategies for both rendering social justice visible and challenging the mindsets and ideologies as they manifest in engineering education? This section accentuates strategies to empower students and faculty to overcome the limitations of the ideologies and mindsets.

One mechanism for transcending the mindsets and ideologies is implicit in a set of six criteria in an Engineering for Social Justice (E4SJ) model, which can be implemented in many areas and parts of engineering education, including problem definition and solution, brief and semester-long design projects, and other classroom applications (Leydens & Lucena, 2018). This section describes the criteria and the activities directly and indirectly based on them. These criteria accentuate the sociotechnical nature of engineering problem solving.


Listening Contextually: Listening to context or a community’s diverse perspectives on their history, aspirations, and forms of knowledge fosters a capacious understanding of problem definition. Information on cost, technical specs, desirable functions, and timeline acquires meaning only when the context of the person(s) making the requirements is better understood. Such listening also informs the rest of the criteria.


Identifying Structural Conditions: Structural conditions are economic, cultural, or other social factors that facilitate or constrain multiple actors’ possibilities and aspirations (e.g., endemic poverty in a region preventing access to health, education, and housing). Since they can challenge or maintain inequity, such conditions inform problem definition and solution processes as well as criterion 3.


Acknowledging Political Agency/Mobilizing Power: Since engineering practice occurs in social contexts, it has inherent political dimensions. Acknowledging political agency asserts engineers’ right and social responsibility to mobilize power (their own and of those who they are serving) to challenge inequity-perpetuating structures or assumptions created by those in power. To do otherwise only reinforces the power status quo.


Increasing Opportunities and Resources: Distinguishing these becomes clear via example. A design team one of the authors worked with redesigned a bike seat for individuals who are quadriplegic—providing access to roads and trails for recreation, exercise, and health. However, the team realized those opportunities are not accessible if individuals do not have a range of resources, including the funds to rent the bikes and helmets; thus, the seat design balanced safety considerations with affordability.


Decreasing Risks and Harms: Engineers investigate user and community practices to know how any given design or technology can reduce, eliminate, or mitigate imposed risks and harms, not just those ascertained from designers’ own lived experience but also from multiple additional stakeholder/community perspectives.


Enhancing Human Capabilities: Ultimately, the purpose of the first five criteria is to serve to enhance human capabilities. Nussbaum identifies 10 crucial capabilities: (a) life (of a normal length); (b) bodily health; (c) bodily integrity (freedom from assault, etc.); (d) senses, imagination, and thought; (e) emotions (love, grief, gratitude, etc.); (f) practical reason (for critical thinking, freedom of conscience, etc.); (g) affiliation (including protecting institutions that ensure the social preconditions for non-humiliation regardless of sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.); (h) other species (respect for plants, animals, and nature in general); (i) play (recreation, laughter); and (j) control over one’s political and material environment.

As Leydens and Lucena (2018) have noted, engineering students can be given a diverse array of opportunities to apply these criteria. There are a number of reflective liberatory pedagogies and practices to empower students to understand, reinforce, and leverage the E4SJ criteria while challenging the ideologies and mindsets that act as blinders in their efforts to see the relationships between engineering and social justice (Cech, 2014; Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Riley, 2008). Here, five strategies for applying these criteria are described.


Pedagogical tools to acknowledge privilege, including privilege walks, discussions, design projects or case studies, can foster awareness among students of how one’s demographic position in social structures can influence one’s academic, income, and other outcomes, especially with respect to social position and to engineering as a social endeavor (McIntosh, 1988, 1990, 2000). When implemented with care and attention to the range of privilege in the room, and without burdening marginalized students with educating those more privileged, these pedagogical exercises can reinforce the E4SJ criteria, especially criterion 2, Identifying Structural Conditions. Questions can be developed to show students their own relative privilege with respect to the power structures of engineering. For example, we can ask students to take a position with respect to the following statement: “I can be almost certain that if I ask to talk to ‘a person in charge’ (e.g., dean, provost, president) at my school or during my next visit to another engineering school, I will be facing a person of my skin color [or gender, social class, etc.].” In our experience, encounters like these empower students to be more willing to question the ideology of meritocracy, after they begin to realize that not all of them have the same starting point when it comes to accessing resources and opportunities or when facing risks and harms. However, and perhaps most importantly, all privilege-related activities must be well constructed and debriefed to ensure students understand that the purpose is awareness and not blame, shame, or guilt. These exercises serve important functions during the rest of a course and as future touchpoints. Students can refer to them when discussing, reflecting, or writing about power structures in engineering and how these are related to the social categories that students themselves occupy. As visual, bodily sensed experiences, privilege walks and other experiential exercises can provide a more effective reference through which students of different races, genders, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, or other characteristics can begin to make sense of power structures in engineering. Once students can see their position with respect to each other in relation to power structures of engineering, they can more easily begin addressing Criterion 3, Acknowledging Political Agency/Mobilizing Power, in other classroom activities that could invite them to challenge discriminatory structures and practices.


Micro-ethnographies of engineering education environments have the goal of making visible the existence of mindsets and ideologies in the culture of engineering education, reinforcing criteria 1 and 2. Students learn to embed themselves in the physical and social spaces of engineering education and are trained to do brief participant observations that are attentive to how the mindsets and ideologies actually shape behavior, language, and even the way the physical environment is built. For example, our students learn to “hang out” in the corridors of the petroleum engineering department and start conversations with faculty and students with questions such as, “Where do I get a job in the oil/gas industry that enhances human rights and the goals of social justice?” Then students are trained to observe the responses to the question (e.g., “human rights are outside of the domain of petroleum engineering” or “social justice topics are dealt with in the humanities department”) and identify the mindsets and ideologies—e.g., technical narrowness and/or depoliticization—at play. In our experience, after conducting these mini-ethnographies, students become more willing to question mindsets and ideologies since they now see them not as abstract concepts but as operating in (early) 21st-century language and behaviors. By listening contextually (reading the context of their engineering environments) and identifying structural conditions (seeing how mindsets and ideologies are reinforced by structures of power like meritocracy being upheld by honors lists outside the dean’s office), students imagine how they can begin deploying political agency (e.g., proposing to the dean’s lists that highlight students’ commitment to social justice causes) and/or increasing opportunities and resources for students who do not have the time, money, or resources to take advantage of academic opportunities that often lead to higher grades.


Location, Knowledge, Desire (LKD) mapping makes prominent the goal of developing in students self-awareness of positionality with respect to their own histories, knowledges, and desires and with respect to other students (Leydens & Lucena, 2018). Students are invited to outline: (a) their life trajectory that brought them to be (un)interested in social justice in their current location (engineering school); (b) their knowledges, both formal and informal, and how these might relate to their (lack of) commitments to social justice; and (c) their desires, especially how to contribute to the integration of engineering and social justice. This LKD mapping reinforces the E4SJ criteria, especially criterion 2, as it makes visible how structures of power have operated in their upbringing and knowledge acquisition, and criterion 3, as it allows students to gain powerful insights into their own agency and those of others around them. By mapping their location, students begin to realize that where you come from matters in your relationship with social justice, and it significantly influences where you can/want to go. This realization challenges the ideology of meritocracy, which assumes that individual hard work is the main determinant of success and what doors one can open. By mapping their knowledges, students learn that they, and other people, have other funds of knowledge beyond credentialized engineering knowledge and that these “non-expert” funds of knowledge should be valued and respected (Denton & Borrego, 2021; Verdín et al., 2021). That approach challenges those mindsets and ideologies that rely heavily on valuing expert knowledge exclusively. By mapping their desires, students begin to give shape to their own social and political projects, particularly in relation to making engineering serve the goals of social justice. In our experience, after this LKD mapping, students are more ready and willing to question the ideologies and mindsets and eager to embrace the E4SJ criteria.


Rewriting engineering problems has the goal of making the dominant pedagogical method in engineering education (i.e., the engineering problem-solving method found in most science, math, and engineering science courses and textbooks) relevant to the goals of social justice, while also inviting students to critically reflect on learning practices in the discipline (e.g., Dewey, 1938; Freire, 1993). For example, taking a traditional heat transfer problem in which students are given initial and final temperatures and physical characteristics of a block and are asked to calculate the heat lost by the block, students are invited to rewrite the problem within the context of homelessness and, instead of a block, assume that a human being is sleeping on the street under certain temperature conditions and physical and other characteristics, and then to calculate the heat lost by the human. This rewriting can be done so it challenges both ideologies and most mindsets while reinforcing all E4SJ criteria such as Increasing Opportunities and Resources (criterion 4) and Decreasing Risks and Harms (criterion 5), by including in the problem statement, for example, the design of protective shelters that minimize heat loss while enhancing sleep time. The effectiveness of such problem rewriting comes from making the dominant pedagogy in engineering and the metric of success in engineering education—mastering Engineering Problem Solving (EPS) (Downey, 2005, 2015)—relevant to students’ commitments to social justice. As one student put it,

In engineering, we are taught to solve an incredible number of engineering problems using the EPS method. We get so good at solving things using the EPS method, that they become second nature to us. EPS forces so many assumptions to be made, which transfers over into our actual life. Since we don’t really see many of these social injustices happening in everyday [life], our brains automatically just assume that it does not happen, and since it’s not given, then it doesn’t pertain to us, therefore irrelevant. Through the [Engineering and Social Justice] class, I was able to grasp the importance of contextualizing problems. The problem rewrites were a way to prove to us the importance of contextualized problems. I often found myself becoming immersed within the problem, and becoming attached to the people in the problems . . . This rewrite forced, and allowed me to look at engineering in a new perspective, and attempt to empathize with these people. (Student in the course “Engineering and Social Justice,” emphasis added)

Problem rewrites can involve rewriting engineering problems that students encounter in their engineering science classes (Leydens & Lucena, 2018, ch. 3), engineering design projects (ch. 2), and practicums and internships, with the hope that they will learn to apply these as practicing engineers after graduation.


Design projects that integrate E4SJ criteria have the goal of making the culminating experience in engineering education relevant to the goals of social justice. By making the E4SJ criteria part of the capstone design criteria that students have to consider, on par with other more traditional criteria like cost, weight, function, and size, this method challenges students to place social justice at the center of engineering design, instead of as an afterthought or an add-on consideration. For example, students working on the design of a mining backpack for small-scale miners to carry ore out of mine shafts have been challenged to integrate the E4SJ criteria. This encouraged design students: (a) to consider interviewing miners and their families to learn how these backpacks affect their lives, such as developing back problems that increase sick time (criterion 1); (b) to learn how the division of labor and hierarchies established inside the mine has everything to do with who uses the backpacks and how they are used (criterion 2); (c) to learn how they can insert themselves in the labor relations among miners so the improved backpack can be used (criterion 3); (d) to design the backpack for safety, health, and affordability (criterion 4); (e) to choose materials that will decrease weight and minimize entanglements (criterion 5); and (f) to view the backpack as a part of a larger sociotechnical ensemble that improves many human capabilities of the miners (criterion 6). Additional pedagogical resources for integrating social justice in engineering education are available (Baillie et al., 2012; Catalano et al., 2008; Leydens & Lucena, 2018; Lucena, 2013; Riley, 2012).

Imagined Futures

Given the challenges associated with rendering the mindsets and ideologies visible in engineering education, it is important to explore future scenarios. What futures can we imagine for social justice issues within engineering education? This section describes two of many broad potential future scenarios and their implications for both engineering education and practice.

Business-as-Usual Scenario

If the mindsets and ideologies in engineering remain unquestioned and at the periphery of an engineering education, more engineers will be trained into a narrow technical focus. The replication of such mindsets and ideologies will likely further marginalize social justice issues, allowing engineers to retreat into a seemingly neutral conception of technology. The implications for this are dire in a time in which significant challenges require the innovative capacities that engineers and others hold to solve problems related to climate change, infrastructure, affordable technology, pandemics, and more. Additionally, we face difficult choices around artificial intelligence, automation, and space commercialization, colonization, and/or weaponization that require thorough ethical examination. There are significant chances that this scenario could continue to be the status quo of engineering education, and actually be reinforced, due to a number of ongoing trends:

Pressures on engineering education programs to reduce the number of credits to graduation, which often results in the reduction of courses where critical reflection on engineering mindsets and ideologies can actually happen.

Hype for innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) in engineering education, which at first sight can be viewed as a real attempt for engineering education to make the work of engineers relevant to the problems of marginalized communities, when in fact many of these I&E efforts tend to privilege the interests of already privileged students and groups (Masters et al., 2019; Vinsel & Russell, 2020; Wisnioski et al., 2019).

Increasing censure of academic freedom, in which many conservative organizations and state legislatures curtail the ability of engineering educators willing to bring social justice to the fore and discuss topics like systemic racism and sexism, critiques of capitalism, and patriarchy and white privilege (Pawley et al., 2019; Riley, 2017).

Taken to an extreme, this scenario could result in engineers who are unwilling to question extremist political agendas on the rise around the world (Wodak, 2013) and who could end up working for populist authoritarian regimes as cogs in a larger political machine. Engineers who know neither about the existence of nor about how to question their mindsets and ideologies are more vulnerable to be enlisted by radicalized politics, as were the engineers of jihad (Gambetta & Hertog, 2016) and the Nazi engineers (Katz, 2011; Taylor, 2010).

Aspirational Scenario: Transitioning and Preparing for How It Could Be Otherwise

In contrast to the business-as-usual scenario, another possible future scenario involves increasing acknowledgment over time that engineering is not a technical but a sociotechnical field of practice. The implications for that acknowledgment are significant. If engineers can eradicate entrenched mindsets and ideologies, they will be able to recognize new ways in which to serve the health, welfare, and safety of the public, resist systemic injustice, and not be exclusively constrained by profit motives and the whims of wealthy, powerful clients. Engineering can become a stronger force for social change to serve underserved individuals and communities.

Such acknowledgments are already occurring, as engineering gatekeepers, faculty, and students see the value of further validating how social justice can inform engineering education and practice. For instance, securing funding often provides the legitimacy and autonomy to counteract the institutional resistance fueled by the mindsets and ideologies. Grants allow engineering faculty to create social justice–related courses, conduct research, fund students, and, if the grant is large enough, build organizational infrastructure so connections between engineering and social justice can extend beyond one course or group of faculty. For more than a decade, it has been possible to secure external funding for scholarly activities to integrate engineering and social justice. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States has been a key site for such funding, supporting individual grants such as those focusing on Introduction to Computing in Engineering at Tufts, Engineering Ethics Education for Social Justice at New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the University of Florida. NSF has also provided institutional grants aimed at organizational transformation, such as a grant leveraging social justice principles to develop changemaking engineers at the University of San Diego (see also Engage Engineering, 2016; Lord et al., 2017). In addition to the Division of Engineering Education and Centers, NSF has also funded varied institutional change initiatives via programs like ADVANCE, INCLUDES, AGEP, S-STEM.HBCU-UP, TCUP, and others. The benefits of the aspirational scenario are many and range from the individual, to the curricular, to the institutional, and to societal levels:

Individually, students will be able to reflect critically about the engineering mindsets and ideologies in their educations and practices (metacognition), find societal relevance in engineering education, especially with issues that are important to many (e.g., homelessness, environmental injustice, poverty, discrimination), and bring these attributes into their professional careers.

Faculty will be able to relate their course content to important societal issues, thus increasing student engagement, learning, and satisfaction, as has been the collective experience of many scholars (Campbell et al., 2008; Hira et al., 2017; Kolmos & de Graaff, 2014).

Institutionally, engineering schools can present themselves as educational sites for reflective and critical thinkers and for socially responsible education, and as responsible and accountable partners responding to social justice issues in their communities, the nation, and international contexts.

Corporate employers of engineers can benefit from having socially responsible engineers working for them (Smith & Lucena, 2021) and, in the long run, avoid costly and embarrassing social injustices in the communities and environments in which they operate (Davis & Franks, 2014).

Such benefits can also, over time, change who is drawn to and retained in engineering education. A more socially diverse engineering workforce bolsters the kind of information diversity that catalyzes innovation, which also drives industry profit margins (Phillips, 2014). In addition to being the ethically right course of action, a more diverse demographic of engineering students increases the possibility of both boosting information diversity—critical to leveraging the productively dissimilar ways in which engineers frame and solve problems—and, if inclusion efforts are successful, augmenting a sense of belonging in engineering education and practice. Finally, such diversity can also change the kinds of research engineers engage in—and from that research, broadening who in society stands to benefit.

Further Reading

  • Baillie, C. (2009). Engineering and society: Working towards social justice. Part I, Engineering and society. Morgan & Claypool Publishers.
  • Baillie, C., Pawley, A. L., & Riley, D. (2012). Engineering and social justice: In the university and beyond. Purdue University Press.
  • Barry, B. (2005). Why social justice matters. Polity.
  • Leydens, J., & Lucena, J. (2018). Engineering justice: Transforming engineering education and practice (T. Nathans-Kelly, Ed.). Wiley-IEEE Press.
  • Leydens, J. A., Johnson, K. E., & Moskal, B. M. (2021). Engineering student perceptions of social justice in a feedback control systems course. Journal of Engineering Education, 110(3), 718–749.
  • Lucena, J. C. (Ed.). (2013). Engineering education for social justice: Critical explorations and opportunities. Springer.
  • Riley, D. (2008). Engineering and social justice. Morgan & Claypool.


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