Decolonisation in Engineerng
There has been a lot of talk about Decolonising the Curriculum lately, but what does this mean?
History plays a large part in how we think about, and what is taught, in engineering in the UK, often based on progress linked to the Industrial revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire – which was enabled by the Industrial Revolution - through building, infrastructure and trade. This puts Anglo-centric achievements of the eighteenth and nineteenth century in greater focus than other earlier achievements, for example in the Islamic world, linked to chemistry, mathematics and the building of religious monuments. The philosophy behind this economic growth linked to industrial development remains largely the overarching and unchallenged philosophy of our country today. This is not, however, necessarily the case in other parts of the world, where this model of development and growth was historically not the dominant ethos, and indeed this is beginning to be challenged in the UK and the ‘developed’ world as we come to terms with more sustainable growth.
A ‘decolonising’ viewpoint would begin to be aware of the impact of the economic and political drivers linked to industrialisation, and their historical context, that have and continue to influence our technological advancement.
Contextualising a problem to relate it to the world in which we live, in order to explain concepts is a commonly used device to help students understand and relate to ideas more easily. The context given should be relevant and appropriate to the setting, and not based upon a colonial viewpoint. So for example where engineering courses which have been developed in the UK are delivered in Institutions in other parts of the world, the examples given may not be appropriate. For example, explaining buoyancy and displacement by using the analogy of a ship and its cargo may well be inappropriate for many students who live in landlocked countries and are not familiar with ships. A different way of explaining this concept would be preferred. Or equating an area to the size of a football pitch would be an unhelpful analogy for those who do not play football.
Politics of Engineering
Engineering and politics are closely aligned, in spite of the fact that few engineers are drawn into political life. Public money is directed towards projects and technologies which suit the strategies of the ruling party of the day, and these strategic priorities will look very different in one country to those of another. Failure to acknowledge what the political incentives of a country are when delivering an engineering curriculum in that country would create a mismatch between the skills of the graduating engineers and the skillsets needed for addressing the strategic priorities. Imposing our own Western values and ambitions on global partners who do not share these values is likely to generate knowledge and expertise in engineers that are poorly matched to the actual skills needed to solve local problems.
Reading Lists and Role Models
Reading lists and role models from our own historical context which are invariably white, western and usually male are not representative of our diverse audience.
Language of Engineering and Higher Education
Decolonising the curriculum is about making engineering more accessible to people who would not necessarily see themselves as fitting into the current engineering landscape. Part of feeling a sense of belonging in any sector is understanding the language that is used, and the language of Higher Education and academia is notoriously exclusive. Use of jargon, acronyms and language shortcuts are common, and have the effect of excluding people who have not grown up in families where this language is known and spoken regularly.
Similarly the systems that allow people access to Higher Education – UCAS systems, finance systems, and league tables all allow smoother passageways and access to those who have trodden the path previously.
Engineering ethics look different depending on what part of the world you are in, and it can be problematic to define ethics in a truly global context. An acknowledgement of this issue, at least, takes into account that the principles of ethics are not universal, and the impact that this may have on international projects will be important.
How and whether and to what extent we get involved in the conversation about decolonisation, as white colonial academics, is a sensitive conversation and needs to be addressed so that all members of the engineering community are welcome to engage in these conversations and be part of the change. But where does the line come when the best action is to stand back, and give space? For discussion.
Pathways to Development
Different pathways to development exist for the developing and the developed world, with an unfair ‘playing field’ being imposed on developing countries. Developing countries are expected to forego their development at the same rate and using the same technologies as developed nations, who have exploited the highly carbon intensive industries (like coal) to their own benefit, and then expect developing nations to limit their use of these same technologies.
Why is my curriculum white?
Is the content of your course diverse and inclusive enough? This report from the NUS highlights a campaign by UCL which brings more representation from non White, non European content to University courses. But what more can be done in the engineering disciplines? Audit your own teaching for diversity and inclusion using the audit form here.