Former Johns Hopkins instructor Sarah Hemminger was on a family vacation, standing on a cliff and gazing at the horizon. “Look at that sunset,” she told her eight-year-old daughter, Evie.
“No, it’s the moon!” Evie replied
They were back and forth, each insisting they were right, when Evie finally forced Hemminger to turn around. There was the moon, as bright as it could be.
“Here she and I were, in the same place on Earth, seeing something as different as the sun and the moon,” Hemminger said. “And that happens a lot in life; we’re so sure we see the sun that we don’t create the space for the possibility that someone can see the moon.”
This lesson is at the heart of what Hemminger teaches Johns Hopkins undergraduates in his Social Justice for Engineers course — that there is always another perspective. Conceived during the pandemic, word of mouth has made the Whiting School of Engineering course a popular distance class. This semester, the course was offered for the first time in person and its 50 places quickly filled.
“The goal, at the highest level, is for students to come out understanding better about themselves and how to connect with others.”
Social justice for engineers
The course is a partnership between the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering and Thread, a non-profit organization that Hemminger and her husband co-founded to connect struggling high school students with volunteers from academia. and business.
Through her work with Thread, Hemminger, an adjunct assistant professor at the Whiting School of Engineering who is herself an alumnus of the BME program, found that students benefited the most from volunteers who didn’t teach them but instead were vulnerable with them, which created deep bonds across the line of difference. “This redirection has become Thread’s rallying cry,” says Hemminger.
Over the past decade, the Thread team has developed comprehensive content to bridge the gaps, which they found meant teaching people “to better understand themselves and their biases, knowledge, attitudes and their beliefs,” she said.
It turned out that Hopkins’ Department of Biomedical Engineering had a similar mission.
Biomedical engineering, or BME, uses engineering to solve health problems. “I have a facial deformity,” says Hemminger, “and an implant allows me to keep my left eye open so I can see through. This implant is a medical device that a biomedical engineer probably created.”
Eileen Haase, director of the undergraduate BME program at Hopkins, emphasizes that BME is not just about designing something that works better. “It’s about designing something that’s easier to use, so you don’t need skilled doctors to do it,” she says. “It makes imaging more accessible, so we can find things before they go bad. It makes vaccines reasonably priced.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael I. Miller, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Hopkins, contacted Hemminger to create a course.
“Inclusive excellence is central to Hopkins BME’s mission to advance human health through scientific discovery, translational research and innovation,” said Miller. “As biomedical engineers, it is our responsibility to make our technologies as accessible as possible. To do this, we must have a clear understanding of the challenges – social, cultural, financial, technical or otherwise – that impede progress. More we educate about these barriers, the more effective we can be in designing innovative solutions and improving the quality of health care delivery for all.”
Hemminger and Miller saw that social justice was integral to a BME education, especially given the inequality of health care in the country. For example, recent studies have shown that racial and ethnic minorities in the United States receive poorer health care, and these disparities lead to poorer health outcomes.
Part of the problem is the bias of politicians, hospitals, doctors and engineers who design clinical equipment and medical devices. Some of the biases are intentional, Hemminger points out, such as the push in some states to restrict access to trans health services, but some of those biases are unconscious or stem from a lack of exposure or training; some people are so used to seeing the sun from their perspective that they don’t consider the moon.
“If we think of biomedical engineering as a problem-solving practice,” says Hemminger, “then health care inequality is probably the biggest problem in our lives.”
The course follows a unique structure. In the first hour, Hemminger and Nick Greer, his Thread colleague, teach pedagogy. Jerry Zhang, a recent biomedical engineering graduate who took the course, recalls learning about redlining in Baltimore, the historic discriminatory practice of denying black residents mortgages and other services. “Until then,” he says, “I didn’t really understand why Baltimore was like this. These concepts really opened my eyes to the injustices within my own community.”
Zhang applies to medical school and plans to become a clinician. He worked on medical device projects at Hopkins, some of which he is still involved with. One project is a perfect example of the problems of biomedical engineering: a pulse oximeter, worn on the tip of the finger to measure oxygen in the blood. “Our clinical measurements revealed that for dark-skinned patients, the device is biased and inaccurate,” he said. “I work to make [them] more precise.”
The second hour of the course is devoted to a guest speaker involved in community work. Hemminger brought in Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP; Wes Moore, the current Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland; and Fagan Harris, president and CEO of Baltimore Corps. Hemminger said these speakers weren’t just there to talk about their successes. “They’re ready to talk about the things they failed at,” she said, “ready to talk about when someone said something really hard to hear, and it changed their behavior.”
Isaac Frumkin, a recent graduate who majored in economics and minored in computer science, says he loved hearing people make positive contributions to the world. “Being able to ask them questions in a small group was a totally invaluable experience,” he says.
Frumkin later joined Wes Moore’s campaign for governor while still in school; he now works there full-time as a data associate. He used what he learned in Hemminger’s class to make a real impact in elementary school. “I worked hard to organize events and canvases where we would connect with communities historically ignored by the political process,” says Frumkin, because many campaigns don’t cover areas where people haven’t voted very much. previously.
The week before the election, Frumkin hosted a canvas in Cherry Hill which Wes Moore attended. “We actually saw, based on the data, that the turnout at Cherry Hill [for Moore] was more than a model would have projected, because we went to contact them.”
Finally, the third hour of Hemminger’s course is devoted to discussion, largely introspective. “All the work we’ve done to examine our personal biases has definitely changed my perspective,” Frumkin says. “I know I’m biased about some things, but now I understand what a tremendous impact this can have on just about every relationship and conversation you have.”
Subha Batta took the course in the spring of 2021 and loved it so much that she taught the course the following semester. Majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering, she knew about racial inequality and systemic oppression, but was eager to learn more about Baltimore in particular. “It was really helpful to learn about the social climate in Baltimore,” she says. After graduating last spring, Batta accepted a one-year internship at Thread. Last September, she started a new position as a graduate research and development associate at AstraZeneca.
Batta will never forget the “basic skills” she learned in class. Core Competencies were developed as behavioral norms also instilled by Thread to create the conditions for belonging to a multicultural and diverse community. A skill, for example, is to fail, or to be able to give and receive feedback and act on it. “I always want to improve no matter what. [competencies] I miss them,” says Batta. “There are so many that I didn’t even realize they were useful for social change.”
Haase, the BME undergraduate program director, also said engineers must be prepared to fail.
“That’s what the design process is,” she says. “There’s all of that pulling it apart, and your great idea transforms, and you may have to rework it. It’s a humbling process.”
Hemminger sees the classroom as a place where students are vulnerable. “The goal, at the highest level, is for students to come out understanding themselves better and how to connect with others,” she says. “It’s not easy to do. This stuff is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s messy and takes a lot of practice.”