Nisha Sahgal: Engineering & social justice

Gabby Kepnes, Staff Writer

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Nisha Sahgal (12) received inspiration for her Independent Study on engineering through a humanitarian lens through her participation on the robotics team. Sahgal was questioning the implications of engineers and their lab work on society, and decided to research this for her project.

Over the summer, Sahgal participated in a program that examined the engineering and ethics of autonomous cars, she said, and began to wonder what happens to the people who are negatively affected by these products,

“We almost always assume that advancement is forward,” she said. “But what about the other direction of advancement?”

First, she researched the history of engineering, and then went on to research people in STEM working on engineering related projects and labs.

“How are these people impacting the world and how are they doing it differently than any other engineer?” she said.

Most of Sahgal’s work consists of researching her topic, she said. During the first semester, she concentrated on researching the ways in which engineering is serving the world in the way in which it’s supposed to, she said.

Nisha’s Independent Study advisor and Computer Science and Robotics Department Chair, Danah Screen, really tries to enforce the “independent” part while working with Sahgal, Screen said.

“I make Nisha do a run through of her presentations at least twice,” Screen said. “You never know how presentations go until you do it in front of someone, and Nisha is good about planning.”

During the first semester, Sahgal gave one presentation that served mainly as an overview of the implications of engineering with and without social justice, she said.      

“To show engineering with a humanitarian lens, I talked about topics of discoveries that work to give technological solutions in environments with poverty,” she said. “For example, I talked about the Gear Lab at MIT which helps obtain an affordable prosthetic knee for rural countries like India.”

“Nisha did a good job of showing the connect between engineering and social justice when most people don’t usually see the connection between the two,” Faijul Rhyan (12), a student in her Independent Study class, said.

For her research on engineering without a humanitarian lens, Sahgal discussed Amazon Rekognition, a program created by Amazon that is easily able to recognize faces and objects from images and video you provide for it. “People ended up doing research on this design and realized that it became racist because as the results were impacted based on the color of the subject’s skin,” she said.

Sahgal wanted to get the message across to her classmates that algorithms don’t always help or solve what they are supposed to, even though it may sound like a good idea. She wants her classmates to see that engineering plays a larger role in social justice than people might think, she said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean writing scholarly essays, but STEM has a role in every aspect of our lives,” she said.

“I believe the root of the disconnect is that scientists believe that advancement is always moving forward and as we continue living in an era of rapid tech expansion, we, as engineers and as a society, need to understand the impact and intention of new technology on the world to truly improve people’s lives,” Sahgal said.