In mining project, engineers bridge the scientific and the social

UTA student engineers learn to partner with mining communities from Colorado to Colombia

Wednesday, Sep 29, 2021 • Herb Booth : Contact

From left, Kathleen Smits, Anson Belcher, Nathan Steadman, Michelle Schwartz, Jose Velasquez and Ashley Nguyenminh
From left, Kathleen Smits, Anson Belcher, Nathan Steadman, Michelle Schwartz, Jose Velasquez and Ashley Nguyenminh

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 miners who were indifferent to the health and environmental consequences of their work.

Instead, the UTA civil engineering doctoral student found that the miners not only were aware of the environmental and health risks, they also were actively working to address them.

“It showed me the level of creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of ASGM community members,” she said. “After speaking with the miners, hearing their stories and seeing their ideas, I learned how vital it is for engineers like me to partner with the community in the design process.”

This epiphany formed the basis of her follow-up field work in Gunnison, Colorado, this summer as part of civil engineering Professor Kathleen Smits’ National Science Foundation-funded project on ASGM. Originally, the field work was supposed to take place in Colombia, but travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic required Smits to come up with a new plan.

The trip, which was incorporated into Dr. Smits’ service-learning course, 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 U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado University and Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Schwartz served as a mentor to undergraduate students during the two-week session. Part of her work involved developing lesson plans that would challenge the students to take a sociotechnical approach to their projects.

“We as engineers can often become fixated on the 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 students to understand the interconnectedness between technical, scientific knowledge and the social setting in which this knowledge was developed and applied.”

In the mornings, students visited abandoned, active and reclaimed mining sites throughout Colorado, learning about engineering as well as the social, technical and political dynamics of mining from engineers, hydrogeologists, environmental nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, activists and more. In the afternoons, the students worked with miners in Colombia remotely.

“This work puts community needs in the spotlight,” said José Velásquez, who graduated from UTA with his master’s degree in civil engineering this summer. “It has been a good way for students and community members to interact with each other, meet new people from other parts of the world and experience firsthand other cultures and their thinking processes.”

Anson Javier Belcher, a senior civil engineering student, said the team not only gained a better understanding of miners’ culture, but was also able to play a role in enhancing the health and safety of the environment—and of the miners themselves.

“The project helps mining communities move forward, allowing them to mine for more gold in a safer way,” Belcher said. “Ultimately, I learned about the power of organizing such a diverse group, including the local miners, and how it made a difference.”

For Smits, such tangible and intangible lessons were exactly the point of the field work. These experiences serve to ensure students graduate from UTA ready to impact their communities in more powerful ways, she said.

“By explicitly creating engineering problems grounded in social and environmental justice concepts, we are able to attract, motivate and retain more diverse students who are able to find a sense of place and purpose in their work,” Smits said. “When we embrace engineering within the context of complexity, it allows us to better prepare engineers and scientists for problems we have yet to even imagine.”

Learn more about the project on UTA’s Sen Colectivo Educativo website or the Colorado School of Mines Responsible Mining, Resilient Communities site.

- Written by Amber Scott, University Advancement