Even if it never becomes law, new infrastructure policy shows the way forward in higher education

Whether or not it passes through Congress, the American Jobs Plan (AJP), announced recently by President Biden, marries infrastructure reinvestment, climate action, social and racial equity, and economic stimulus and competitiveness in unprecedented new ways – at least as far as Federal policy is concerned.

Franco Montalto at the COP24 climate conference
Franco Montalto at the COP24 climate conference.

Historical infrastructure policy linked communities across the country with canals, rails, highways, pipes and power lines, but often destroyed habitats, severed intact and vulnerable communities, and locked in problematic dependencies at the same time. Previous efforts to boost the national economy may have put people to work but did not explicitly prioritize activities that enhance environmental systems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, policies focusing on jobs, transportation systems, agriculture or parks manipulated the environment, mainly for extractive or, at best, aesthetic purposes. And as a nation, we’ve certainly never measured our greatness through the level of investment we make in our most economically disadvantaged, racially segregated, or environmentally unjust communities.

Indeed, today’s optimists see in Biden’s infrastructure plan a glimmer of hope that government may finally be figuring out how to avoid the perverse externalities associated with previous waves of heavily siloed public policy. The pessimists worry it cannot all be paid for, except through tax and spend strategies that they find unacceptable.  

Regardless of whether Congress passes the bill, the AJP points a way forward for higher education. Our graduates will surely deliberate over, unpack, and hopefully realize the synergistic opportunities embedded in the AJP proposals throughout their careers. Faculty can help them wade into these unprecedented waters starting in the classroom.  In engineering or any of the other natural, social, applied, or health sciences, students need to continue to learn the core competencies of their disciplines, but as importantly, they will need to learn how to apply those skills appropriately and collaboratively in a diverse, multilayered globally connected society. Years of probing cause and effect relationships provides an understanding that many negative consequences erupt from historical patterns of development, consumption, and environmental modification. For example, we understand well the conditions leading to social isolation, pollution of air, water, and land, economic and racial inequality, urban heat islands, climate change, or any of the vulnerabilities implicit in global supply chains as we saw recently in the Suez Canal. But the era of studying cause and effect relationships now needs to be accompanied by an equal emphasis on how they can be addressed explicitly in design processes. How do we design policies, products, and infrastructure systems that establish a more sustainable relationship between human, natural, and climatic systems? As faculty, we must begin now to accelerate our efforts to prepare our students for this challenge.

We’ve learned through our outreach for Climate Year, that faculty across our university are already working on this transformation of education. On one hand, it is through broadening the context of what we teach. On the other hand, faculty are already helping our students to better understand how to engage community stakeholders, how to comport themselves in interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, multi-sectoral project teams (the kind that likely helped create the AJP), and how make responsible decisions amidst profound uncertainty and dynamically evolving conditions.

Exciting opportunities for innovative pedagogy and engaged learning can be found in virtually every sector. Civil engineering students, for example, need to understand not just how to design a flexible pavement, building, or bridge, but how to lay out an infrastructure network to maximize its social, natural, and economic value on a culturally and ecologically heterogeneous landscape. Students studying water resources still need to learn how to efficiently abstract and deliver water, but today we also need to consider how to reduce water demand, capture and use rainfall where it falls, and to ensure adequate environmental flows and long-term aquifer recharge. Business students need to learn how to craft winning entrepreneurship strategies, but through ventures that provide a living wage and contribute to a circular economy, even if doing so is not mandated by law. Computer science students need to learn how to code, but also how to avoid the proliferation of racism in artificial intelligence. And students in health and social science need to understand not just which human conditions emerge from the specific configurations of the built environment, but how to translate that knowledge into new strategies for urban planning and design.

Higher education needs to both drill down and to zoom out. The rapid pace at which data and knowledge are created, technology changes, and communication occurs means that innovation is everywhere, and it is rapidly evolving our disciplines. As we expose our students to a blend of classical and emerging concepts in our fields, we also need to highlight the way those disciplinary skills can be integrated into collaborative efforts to deliver desirable, sustainable, and resilient strategies for a complex, pluralistic, and uncertain world.

One strategy that compliments Drexel’s dedication to civic engagement quite well is experiential, problem-based learning (PBL) projects with actual community partners invited to be a “class client” (see for example the EPIC-N model being implemented at Drexel). Real projects carry real complexity. Part of what we communicate to our students when we plunge them into PBL is how not to become paralyzed by these conditions, a lesson that is as important as any other we may prepare. In my more than 15 years of PBL teaching, my students may not have solved all the problems that were taken on, but we started a wide range of important conversations with community partners who may not have otherwise had the resources, capacity, or opportunity to do so.

My students tell me that PBL classes require more work than traditional classes, but they also find them very rewarding. The students feel honored that the “client” was interested in their work, while the “clients” feel grateful for the student’s interest in helping solve their problem. I have witnessed these kinds of experiences jump-start many socially engaged careers.

If we, as a society, stand any chance at achieving what some consider lofty civic goals, it will be through collaboration, synchronization, and leveraging. We all need to figure out how to build the plane while we are flying it, and if we begin doing that in the classroom, we will have imbued these skills into our graduates as they enter an extremely dynamic, complex, and challenging world.

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