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Transformative Undergraduate Experiential Learning and Advocacy at the Intersection of Science and Human Rights


Dr. Arthur J. Lustig


  • Speakers
    • Rachel Carr, University of Dayton student
    • Marigrace Moses, University of Dayton student
    • Jared Marsh, University of Dayton student
    • Dr. Kelly E. Bohrer, the Director of Community Relations and Sustainability in the Department of Engineering, University of Dayton 
    • Shelley Inglis, moderator, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Center, University of Dayton. 
  • Background:
    • The University of Dayton has developed unique undergraduate programs that interface didactic scientific training--particularly in engineering--with experiential learning. Experiential learning is achieved through immersion of students into internships at multiple international sites where communities are suffering from lack of basic needs and/or human rights.
  • Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service Learning (ETHOS)
    • Dr. Bohrer described ETHOS, one of U. Dayton’s interdisciplinary centers, as offering both academic and experiential opportunities in a program which integrates science and human rights.
    • In this program, students are prepared for experiential learning prior to the immersion experience through a training curriculum which includes
      • Empathy skills
      • Ethical considerations
      • Scientific cross-disciplinary interactions
      • Communication skills.
    • Students further develop their skills in building relationships with individuals at immersion sites. The immersion sites range from the Republic of Malawi to communities in India. The students always work with on-the-ground community organizations and project academics.
    • The students are not intended to be scientific experts, but to develop the mindset of science as an integral part of human rights endeavors.
    • Both the academics and the students envision this educational endeavor as a work in progress.
  • Student Perspectives
    • The students reported both positive achievements and areas that need improvement.
    • The students were positive about the overall program.
      • Transitional courses helped students understand how individuals from communities-at-risk view their own situation. The students all valued being placed at the intersection of science and community rights.
    • Students had mixed feelings about the transition from didactic education into the immersion program.
      • While all found transition effort valuable, there were differing views of its success.  One student felt overwhelmed and envisioned herself as an “expert in nothing” directly immersed in human rights work, a situation that might have benefited from direct interaction with an NGO. Other students considered this initial disorientation inevitable and part of the learning process.
    • There was concern among students regarding the absence of a transition from this program to traditional advanced degree programs that do not have a focus on human rights.
      • In addition, students feel that they have an insufficient scientific background to work with a human rights organization. While the engineering program is accredited, the students see no easy path forward to develop their careers.  Careers appear to unfold through trial and error.
    • The students have additional roles in recruitment and mentoring.
      • Together with responsibilities for program publicity, the students have a heavy workload.
    • Some students felt that the limited period of immersion did not allow them the see the outcome of their efforts.
  • Panel Discussion with General Audience
    • Several additional issues were raised in subsequent group discussion.
      • The institution is comprised historically of financially advantaged students. This is seen as a deficit by many, and the need for a more diversified student population was acknowledged by the program director and the students.
      • The institution has also developed similar programs for interaction of scientists with local ‘at-risk’ populations within the immediate Dayton area.
      • The program remains limited in funding and in the number of students it can enroll, creating a challenge for the future.
      • Concerns were raised as to whether students were getting sufficient science education in this ambitious program. The accreditation of the program allayed much of that concern.
      • The nature of the program provides an obstacle to interaction with peers at other institutions. For example, students find that their human rights studies are less appreciated than conventional scientifically specialized studies.  Conferences have not yet integrated a human rights focus into their programs.
      • Other universities are trying similar programs but find philosophical barriers to their development. Faculty from some undergraduate institutions experience burnout in trying to develop a science/human rights program.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • The Human Rights Center at Dayton University and its program in Engineering (ETHOS) offers possible models for development on other campuses, though there are also important lessons and challenges that this experience highlights
    • Benefits include students’ direct placement at intersection of science and community rights.
    • Challenges include questions of privilege, insufficient knowledge/experience, and limited timeframe for work.
  • Edge Issue
    • An “edge” issue is the relative value of a program that trains human rights scientists, compared to standard methods of education which train research scientists who subsequently become engaged in human rights.
  • Coalition Involvement
    • The Coalition serves both as a source for materials on science in human rights and as a platform for the discussion of such programs.



  • Higher Education
  • Training
  • Community Engagement


Additional Resources: