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Interdisciplinary class puts manufacturing, supply chains under societal impact lens

A young boy working at a light bulb factory in IndiaA young boy working at a light bulb factory in India. Issues like child labor and pollution are among topics discussed in a unique course combining engineering and human rights. [Photo credit: U. Roberto (Robin) Romano Papers, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Library]

The light bulbs in your home, your favorite pair of sneakers, a morning cup of coffee—where do these everyday products come from, and what’s their social and environmental impact on our world? These are questions being addressed in a unique course at Ohio State combining the disciplines of engineering and social sciences.

The class, “Engineering Sector Assessment for Human Rights and Sustainability,” was developed in part by Allison MacKay, chair of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering. Open to engineering and social sciences students, it examines how companies assess their global supply chains to ensure designs and business practices promote positive social and economic development, while minimizing their environmental impact on the communities where they make products.

According to MacKay, the class is particularly important in today’s world because goods and services are produced through extensive supply chains that circle the globe, often in countries with little capacity to implement standards that we are accustomed to in the United States. 

She created the course during her tenure at University of Connecticut with former colleague Shareen Hertel, an associate professor of political science. The idea for the interdisciplinary course generated from their shared interest in looking at how to assess the social and environmental sustainability of most products that people use daily. MacKay came to Ohio State in 2015, but she and Hertel continue to co-teach the class via live simulcast for students in both Columbus and Storrs, Connecticut.

“Our conversations identified common approaches in what companies were doing to reduce their environmental impacts—often through reduced energy and water consumption—and how they monitor labor rights within their supply chains,” said MacKay, whose research focuses on the fate of contaminants in natural and engineered systems. “Often there are not laws that govern what companies are doing to address these issues, or they are poorly enforced, so advances depend on voluntary certification programs, similar to the ‘Energy Star’ certification on appliance performance.”

Students have the opportunity to see that decisions made in engineering design stages can impact how workers are treated in the production process as well as the resources and wastes associated with production and end use. MacKay uses the electronics industry as the focus sector to highlight concepts for the class. Although students might be exposed to some of the course concepts in political science or sociology classes, it can be challenging to make the direct links to engineering.

Allison MacKayMacKay

“The grounding of this course in engineering business sectors allows students to immediately see the relevance of the topics to their practice,” said MacKay, adding that it helps expand their worldview and their confidence as independent life-long learners.

Students leave the class equipped to evaluate whether companies are implementing best practices with respect to labor force management and environmental impacts. 

“Hopefully, students can also bring some of this thinking to bear in their own careers as engineers for the companies that they will work for,” she said.

Along with the professional benefits, students say the class has made an impact on them on a personal level.

“My biggest takeaway has been the importance of being a conscious consumer,” said Lisa Twarog, a senior in environmental engineering. “Every product purchased is being made by someone, and it's our job to ensure that the product is not only being produced in a sustainable way, but also that the people making it are being treated fairly. The easiest way to make sure producers continue toward the trends of sustainability and fair labor is by proving consumers value these traits.”

Students aren’t the only ones reacting favorably to the class. The response from the academic community—including business, human rights and engineering scholars—has been extremely positive, as has the reaction from guest industry speakers, MacKay notes.

“It is exciting that we have helped to begin building a collaboration between disciplines that has not existed previously.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu