A New Horizon for Teams
‘Collective action’ would better prepare students to meet local and global needs.
By Debbie Chachra
My daily commute is shaped by a highway that doesn’t exist.
Had things gone differently 50 years ago, my 15-mile drive from Cambridge, Mass., to the college where I work would have taken me along the Southeast Expressway, designed to carry commuters from Boston’s growing suburbs to the downtown core. But a group of community activists worked together to prevent the expressway, with its attendant disruption, noise, and pollution, from cutting through their neighborhood. Their mobilization succeeded.
In 2012, the American Association of Colleges and Universities implicitly took note of this kind of activism in its report on civic learning and democratic engagement, A Crucible Moment. In presenting an educational framework, the authors included a new category, Collective Action, described as an integration of knowledge, skills, and attitudes “to inform actions taken in concert with other people.” Such actions include problem-solving with diverse partners and navigation of political systems and processes, including informal ones.
The report solidified, for me, a crucial deficit in engineering education. While teamwork is understood to be important and it is widely appreciated that virtually no engineering work is carried out in isolation, our student teams are very narrowly focused. Many of us recognize that the next great challenge facing engineering education is to help our students learn to understand the larger contexts of their technical work and to recognize and make moral decisions. But, even if they can do this individually, their ability to foster change is limited. They must learn to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues to advocate for policies and direction at their workplace as well as stand in solidarity with communities that will be affected by their work.
The challenges of working with others are more acute than they’ve ever been. It is no longer acceptable to fail to consider how different groups might be disparately affected by new systems or, worse, to dismiss the needs of some groups in favor of others (like building an expressway to primarily serve white suburban commuters while passing through a predominantly African-American neighborhood). This is as true for the newer technologies like social media, facial recognition, and artifical intelligence as it is for established technologies like highways and hydroelectric dams. The community activism that stopped the construction of the Southeast Expressway built upon an earlier fight against a highway through Cambridge, led in part by urban planners who had seen firsthand the displacement of families from Italian neighborhoods and Chinatown as a result of earlier highway expansion.
In large part because of the opposition to the expressway in Boston, the federal laws regarding transportation funding were amended: rather than only paying for highways, it became allowable to use the funds to finance mass transit. Today, where the Southeast Expressway might have been, there is a railway corridor that carries the Orange Line, Amtrak, and commuter rail and, alongside it, a community-designed linear park. Every year, the neighborhood holds a street party to celebrate the highway that wasn’t built. We’re facing the far greater challenges now of building, rather than not building, new infrastructure and systems that equitably serve community needs. We all need to learn to be engaged, committed members of society as we together face the manifold challenges of mitigating the effects of climate change and transitioning to a more sustainable future. That is going to require reimagining much of our physical infrastructure, and that can only happen with community involvement. Whether my commute is slightly longer or no, I can’t imagine a better benchmark of success to aim for than an annual neighborhood party.
Debbie Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College.