In a mining project, engineers bridge the gap between science and
When Michelle Schwartz began her first field session in Colombia to work with artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) communities, she expected, based on her previous research, to find indifferent miners. the health and environmental consequences of their work.
Instead, the UTA’s doctoral student in civil engineering found that the miners were not only aware of the environmental and health risks, but were also actively working to address them.
“It showed me the level of creativity, ingenuity and ingenuity of the members of the ASGM community,” she said. “After speaking with the miners, hearing their stories and seeing their ideas, I learned how essential it is for engineers like me to partner with the community in the design process. “
This epiphany formed the basis for her follow-up fieldwork in Gunnison, Colorado this summer as part of Civil Engineering Professor Kathleen Smits’ National Science Foundation-funded project on ASGM. Originally, the fieldwork was supposed to take place in Colombia, but travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic forced Smits to come up with a new plan.
The trip, which was incorporated into the learning course by Dr. Smits’ service, Site Remediation in Developing Communities, involved several graduate and undergraduate engineering students from UTA, as well as students and faculty from partner institutions Colorado School of Mines, the US Air Force Academy, University of Colorado and Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
Schwartz served as a mentor to the undergraduates during the two-week session. Part of his job was to develop lesson plans that encouraged students to take a socio-technical approach to their projects.
“As engineers, we can often become obsessed with technical and scientific data, neglecting the broader social considerations that can shape our work and influence the success or failure of a project,” she said. . “I wanted the students to understand the interdependence between technical and scientific knowledge and the social framework in which this knowledge was developed and applied. “
In the morning, students toured abandoned, active and reclaimed mine sites across Colorado, learning about engineering as well as the social, technical and political dynamics of mining from engineers, hydrogeologists, d ‘environmental non-governmental organizations, lawyers, activists and more. In the afternoon, the students worked remotely with minors in Colombia.
“This work puts the needs of the community in the spotlight,” said José Velásquez, UTA graduate with his master’s degree in civil engineering this summer. “It has been a great way for students and community members to interact with each other, meet new people from other parts of the world, and learn about other cultures and their thought processes. “
Anson Javier Belcher, a senior civil engineering student, said the team not only gained a better understanding of the culture of miners, but were also able to play a role in improving the health and safety of the environment and the miners themselves.
“The project is helping mining communities move forward, enabling them to mine more gold in a more secure manner,” Belcher said. “In the end, I learned the power of organizing such a diverse group, including local miners, and how it made a difference.”
For Smits, these tangible and intangible lessons were exactly the point of the fieldwork. These experiences serve to ensure that UTA graduate students are ready to have a more powerful impact in their communities, she said.
“By explicitly creating engineering problems grounded in concepts of social and environmental justice, we are able to attract, motivate and retain more diverse students who are able to find meaning in their place and purpose. “said Smits. “When we embrace engineering in a context of complexity, it allows us to better prepare engineers and scientists for problems we haven’t even imagined yet. “
Learn more about the project on UTA’s Sen Colectivo Educativo website or on the Colorado School of Mines Responsible Mining, Resilient Communities website.
– Written by Amber Scott, Academic Advancement