Engineering for Human Rights

Students stand with Nicaraguan villagers.
Students from UConn's Engineers Without Borders group visits Nicaragua to help construct a permanent road linking rural La Prusia with the colonial city of Granada. (UConn Photo)

What do an engineer and a humanitarian have in common?

This question is at the core of the University of Connecticut’s Engineering for Human Rights Initiative.

Engineering is often thought of exclusively as a technological endeavor, but it has many societal implications and applications. Engineering can help bring clean water to people in the remotest corners of the world or protect democratic elections and freedom of speech by securing online platforms, just to name a few examples.

UConn’s Engineering for Human Rights Initiative aims to bridge the gap between STEM students and the good their work can do for people. The program is a collaboration between several organizations within UConn, including the Human Rights Institute and the School of Engineering.

The aim of the initiative is to allow future engineers to think about the ethical implications of their work. “We teach students to manage risk, enhance access to technology, and develop remedies for potential harms generated by their work as engineers,” says Shareen Hertel, associate professor of political science and human rights. Hertel, an expert on labor rights in global supply chains, has helped spearhead the initiative, which draws social scientists like herself into collaborative teaching and research with engineers.

Global issues like climate change have a real human cost, especially in places like poorer island nations that are susceptible to increasingly violent extreme weather events and often lack the resources to rebuild after them. Additionally, changing seasons are making fresh food scarcer for those who rely on farming for their food and/or livelihood.

Human rights issues like these could undoubtedly benefit from imaginative engineering solutions. Faculty and students involved in the Engineering for Human Rights Initiative are already engaged in projects aimed at improving water supply in drought-prone areas of Ethiopia. Others are using vibrational therapy to help patients with cerebral palsy.

Since its creation in 2012, the initiative has been working to build research connections and expand interdisciplinary course offerings addressing the intersection between human rights and engineering.  Through the program, engineering students are able to earn a Human Rights minor as a part of their course of study at UConn and participate in valuable research opportunities around the globe.

“Students know that being able to apply human rights analysis to engineering challenges sets them apart from their peers and distinguishes them in the job market,” Hertel notes. “They bring this other ‘lens’ to the design process and are comfortable working in mixed-skills teams. We are educating engineers who can grapple with human and environmental challenges with greater skill and added insight.”

Through this unique plan of study, engineering students explore human rights and sustainability as they relate to global supply chains, renewable energy, and public opinion on science and technology. Students in this program are encouraged to think about how to “re-engineer” products and production processes to make them more socially and environmentally sustainable.

“Any exposure to a human rights mindset is good, but a minor shows a desire to fully understand how human rights and engineering are connected in a multidisciplinary environment,” says Jonathan Mellor, director of the Initiative and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The initiative brings together different perspectives to see the big picture and work on improving that picture from all angles.

“By bridging the gap between human rights and engineering, we hope to teach the new generation of engineers and social scientists about the human implications of engineering design,” says Mellor. Through these new collaborations, we expect to generate a truly novel framework to advance innovations in education, research and outreach.”

The Engineering for Human Rights Initiative is a collaboration between UConn’s School of Engineering, Human Rights Institute, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research. Special thanks to Kazem Kazerounian, Dean of the School of Engineering, Kathy Libal, Director, Human Rights Institute, and Radenka Maric, Vice President for Research for their support of the Engineering for Human Rights Initiative.

 

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