Last month, over forty ESW members from five chapters gathered at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts for a day of learning and discussion. The Northeast Regional Conference, themed Environmental Justice and Engineering, was a thoughtful look into how our work as engineers intersects with all sorts of issues in the world — racism, sexism, classism — and how we can create a sustainable world that addresses these issues and includes everyone.
The conference began with a brainstorming session: participants created small groups focused on broad sustainability topics, such as water, waste, and energy. Teams were given time to brainstorm project ideas related to their topic, discuss, and refine their ideas to one project. Each team then gave a 30-second pitch to the group, with pitches ranging from enthusiastically frantic to well-rehearsed. Once everyone was warmed up, it was time for breakout sessions.
Breakout sessions were led by Smith College students and ESW Leadership Team members, and each focused on a different area of environmental justice. From understanding the history of radical climate justice to learning about transportation equity issues to mapping toxic emissions in nearby towns with GIS, each session gave participants room to explore topics that were new and possibly uncomfortable to them. Thoughout the sessions, participants were able to ask questions and share examples of how environmental justice issues affected them, the work they did, or where they lived.
The conference was punctuated with a keynote speech from Dr. Paramjeet Pati, a professor in Smith College’s Engineering Program. Dr. Pati spoke about several topics that are near and dear to ESW: life cycle assessment, wicked problems, and how to understand and formulate problems before jumping in to solve them. He used his own research in gold nanoparticles as an example — when looking at how to make production of gold nanoparticles more sustainable, he had to take a step back from looking at one particular solvent to looking at the process of gold extraction as a whole. This led him to change the direction of his research entirely, and he focused instead on recovering precious metals from the waste stream.
The conference provided ESW members from the northeast and beyond to connect with each other and learn more about environmental justice, a topic that many don’t get a chance to grapple with in their engineering studies. For more pictures of this event, check out the Flickr album. Huge thank you to the Smith College ESW Chapter for your expertise and for bringing us together for this great event!