University of Portland engineering school responds to climate change encyclical

Last June, Pope Francis called for a dramatic change in how humans live on Earth, and how those interactions affect its changing climate.

The pope’s call to action is being taken to heart in some likely places — like the University of Portland — plus some not so likely, like the Catholic university’s School of Engineering.

“We need to go to the next step of what it means to be an engineer, and it means factoring social justice and environmental justice into the engineering design process,” says Sharon Jones, dean of the Shiley School of Engineering.

“Young people demand change,” Pope Francis notes in his encyclical on climate change. “They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

At the University of Portland, that’s means a redesign of the engineering curriculum.

“Technological systems are impacted by society, and have impacts on society,” Jones says. “You do need to be precise and design a correct technological solution, but then also think of the impact it’s going to have on the greater good.”

The Shiley School of Engineering now hopes to teach students not just how to solve complex problems, but how to solve them with communities in mind, along with the environments they’re situated in.

Students already are required to take a core curriculum that includes liberal arts classes, but Jones aims to help students draw connections between disparate subjects — such as philosophy and engineering.

Jones and her colleagues are planning on integrating lessons from the University of Portland’s other colleges — possibly history, philosophy, or environmental studies, among others — into every undergraduate engineer’s curriculum. 

The school is uncertain how this concept will emerge in future years. It could mean two different professors from two different colleges team-teach a single course. It also could mean someone from the sociology department teaches a couple of lectures in an engineering class.

“Imagine taking a history class and you're talking about military history, and someone comes in and talks about the technology of the time and what it allowed and didn't allow, and how that may have changed the direction of a particular battle or something,” Jones says.

Similarly, a natural resources expert could visit an engineering class and teach students how a technological problem fits within the grand scheme of a community, instead of just focusing on the problem itself.

“We do have these complex problems, and we do have to break them apart and narrow it down and focus on how we get this system to improve,” Jones says. “But sometimes when we focus in, we lose sight of the fact that it’s part of a bigger system, and it’s a social technical system.”

Civil engineers may need to design a city’s sewer system. But surrounding that problem could exist separate yet related considerations. Is the prospective sewer system sustainable within the city's resources? And how does that sewer system interact with the surrounding environment? Does it negatively affect natural habitats?

The idea is to provide context for students, teaching them not just how to solve problems, but how to solve them in ways that consider a community’s complex interests and necessities.

According to the pope’s encyclical, today’s youth are at the forefront of socially and environmentally conscious behavior.

“And I think that, in part, this generation of students is forcing us, pushing us in (that) direction,” Jones says.

Find out more

The University of Portland and other Catholic universities wrote an op-ed in U.S. News & World Report discussing ways that Catholic engineering schools can stop climate change:

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