Principles for Designing Engineering Curricula Grounded in Environmental Justice

For generations, People of Color within the United States have been disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards that deny fundamental human rights, such as access to clean air, land, water, and food. Environmental inequities range from siting waste facilities in predominantly Black communities, to placing highways through low-income communities, to ordering migrant workers to use hazardous chemicals, to physically forcing Indigenous peoples from fertile lands. These environmental injustices contribute to longstanding, intersecting economic and health disparities when families in affected communities are more likely to develop health problems that affect quality of life and ability to work. Climate change is predicted to exacerbate these injustices.

Although many disciplines offer approaches and tools for recognizing and redressing environmental injustices, we believe the disciplines of engineering are uniquely poised to advance the ethical imperative of a more just and sustainable world. Through more equitable infrastructures and technologies, and through processes and products that recognize people’s interdependence within ecological systems, engineers (and engineering-literate citizens) can realize new, sustainable, and equitable systems, technologies, and processes, which foreground the interests and health of historically minoritized communities. However, despite this urgent ecological and ethical need for engineering education grounded in environmental justice, little is known about how high school teachers can design and implement curricula rooted in principles of environmental justice, such as those outlined by the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991.

The purpose of this exploratory multiple case study was therefore to describe the pedagogical design principles that informed the creation of high school engineering curricula that foregrounded environmental justice. Within the context of these curricula, high school students learned about environmental injustices through case studies that highlighted different aspects of injustice. They interpreted geographically based datasets, such as the Environmental Justice Indexes provided by the Environmental-Protection Agency, and they created data Story Maps that highlighted trends related to environmental injustices in their own communities. Finally, they worked toward designing technologies and systems that could redress these injustices. This study is based in a constant comparative analysis of the teachers’ curricula. Through this analysis, the research team sought to answer the following question: What pedagogical design principles guided high school teachers’ creation of curricula rooted in principles of environmental justice?

A preliminary analysis has indicated pedagogical design principles that informed teachers’ curriculum design, including (a) blending individual human stories with largescale datasets that highlighted inequities; (b) encouraging artistic and aesthetic expression relative to social issues; and (c) highlighting the potential of creative and equitable design to promote public health and equity. While we realize that many other principles may also guide teachers’ pedagogies rooted in environmental justice, this exploratory study may offer implications for other engineering teachers who seek to incorporate principles of environmental justice into high school settings.