Developing intercultural competence among undergraduate mining engineers


Dr Anne Johnson

Since the 1987 Brundtland Report, researchers have sought to identify an appropriate body of sustainability knowledge and to design curricula that will encourage development of the perspectives and skills needed to put this knowledge into practice. Within the field of engineering education, student knowledge of systems and impacts is becoming more sophisticated and attitudes respecting the environmental dimension of sustainability are shifting towards an ethos of stewardship. Mining education has responded with enhanced curriculum focus on understanding and management of environmental impacts of mining, but societal dimensions of sustainability have received less attention. Riley and Nieusma (2010) have advocated for application of a social lens to the professional responsibilities of engineers, but only a few studies have examined engineering students’ conceptualization of the social dimension of sustainability. In Canada, the extractive industry frequently operates on the traditional territories of Aboriginal peoples where communities may be politically and economically vulnerable, and may have diverse cultural values, the impact on the social well-being of communities is often profound. Around the globe, projects located on the customary lands of indigenous peoples can be destabilizing or worse, may threaten community viability. For companies, too, as the investment community begins to look sceptically at projects that have not met the conditions for a social licence, the ability of mining engineers to comprehensively understand social implications of their work in diverse cultural contexts is becoming imperative. Yet, the responsibilities of mining engineers for addressing social dimensions of their work has only recently been addressed in the curriculum. This paper reports on a study that characterized undergraduate mining students’ attitudes towards cultural knowledge to determine the concepts that prevent their understanding to inform treatment of sustainability within the curriculum. It began with the premises that 1) social risk can be viewed as a cultural phenomenon and 2) empathy for culturally determined knowledge and values can support the development of respectful relations that inform appropriate engineering design and mitigate risk. Employing a survey of the skills and attitudes linked to intercultural competence in engineering and focus groups, three threshold concepts for the development of intercultural competence were identified. Strategies for addressing these concepts within the undergraduate curriculum were have been developed and are being introduced.