Based on her work with women’s cooperatives in Lesotho, Baillie knew it was possible for such groups to boost their meager earnings by turning recyclable materials into products. She felt a similar model could be applied to help the cartoneros, as the jobless Argentinian rubbish collectors are known. So when Baillie took a sabbatical from teaching and research at Canada’s Queen’s University, she and her partner Eric Feinblatt headed south to launch Waste-for-Life Buenos Aires. Their aim was to develop a hot-press prototype for cartonero cooperatives that would turn the rubbish into furniture or composite building materials, such as ceiling tiles. The products could be sold to contractors or used in cartoneros’ own homes.
For the next six months, the couple strove to understand the complex Buenos Aires trash-disposal world and overcome a series of obstacles: They weren’t fluent in Spanish, which made it hard to gain the cartoneros’s trust. They also couldn’t get outside funding, and so had to find a way that their hot-press, once perfected, could be manufactured cheaply. But by the time they left, a plan had taken shape for a self-sustaining commercial operation.
“We were really bloody-minded about it,” says Baillie.
Fierce Sense of Equity
Call it bloody-mindedness, perseverance, or plain old pluck, this British-reared educator seems to have more than her fair share of it. Waste-for-Life is just one example. Caroline Baillie has also helped transform the way Queen’s University’s engineering students learn, recreated historical engineering feats for the BBC documentary series Building the Impossible, and directed a ground-breaking theater company that addresses the ethical complexities involved in science.
All the while, Baillie has been a tireless champion of fostering social justice through engineering, challenging her colleagues and students to make ethics a core concern in their work.
Baillie doesn’t know what exactly inspired her fierce sense of equity. She just remembers that when she was a girl, “whatever the issue was, the marginalized person was going to get my support.” Growing up in Dorset, England, she had a friend who owned only one dress and another who had “everything.” “When you live with discrepancies like that and you can see them all around you, you begin to ask questions,” she says.
Besides a zest for action—she rides a Suzuki 1300 Hayabusa motorcycle and flies small single-engine aircraft as a hobby—Baillie has always had a knack for science. A high school career counselor piqued her interest in materials and engineering by giving her a copy of The New Science of Strong Materials: Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor by James Edward Gordon. “I thought that studying materials science would help sort out questions I had about the world,” she recalls.
Early on, she was convinced that science and activism went hand in hand. “It seemed to me I couldn’t save the world unless I knew how it worked,” she says. “I don’t think anybody can contribute to a better world without understanding the technical issues.”
Yet Baillie’s undergraduate experience at the University of Surrey left her cold: “It was a bunch of men telling me a bunch of boring facts about the world, instead of me finding out about it for myself. What was really missing for me was the context.” Still, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in composites engineering at Surrey in 1991. After taking a job teaching mechanical engineering at the University of Sydney, she was on the verge of dropping out of the field when a friend urged her to reconsider her approach to science. After that,“I started thinking how I could apply engineering to make the world a better place, particularly for the poor and marginalized, rather than helping others get rich.”
Baillie began work on a design for natural fiber composites that would cause less environmental damage than plastics. She also went on to earn a second degree in 1995—this time a master’s in higher education from the University of New South Wales—writing her thesis on gender inclusivity in engineering education. “When I started to work on the context of things I truly believed in, I suddenly loved it so much more.”
A Different Kind of Teaching
Baillie’s epiphany led her back to England, where, from 1996 to 2000, she held a joint appointment at Imperial College in the education and materials science departments. After a three-year stint as deputy director of the U.K. Center for Materials Education at Liverpool University, Baillie was approached by three professors from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. They were seeking an instructor who could also explore the engineering education process, developing learning initiatives and promoting integration with other curricula. The result was Baillie’s appointment as DuPont Chair in Engineering Education Research and Development and as head of Queen’s Integrated Learning Center. She is currently cross-appointed in the departments of chemical engineering, sociology, and women’s studies.
Today, the center serves as a base for group and individual lab work, entrepreneurial opportunities, and professional development. Some 40 breakout rooms are available exclusively to students, an environment that encourages teamwork. “Gone are the days of worrying about students copying off each other,” says Baillie, “If students can help each other, that’s great.” Indeed, nearly everything in the facility, from the security to conferences to the eco-friendly tea room, is student-run.
The center also sponsors a weeklong intensive program in which groups of 20 students consider the ethical and environmental impact of various projects. Baillie developed this “professional skills course” to provide students from all engineering disciplines a taste of real-world engagement. In one scenario, for example, students role-play a court case to determine who bears responsibility when a child dies using a lawnmower that has been adjusted by his grandparents.
Alternative to lectures
Aside from teaching a course in engineering and social justice and two graduate-level courses in engineering education, Baillie seeks ways to encourage innovative teaching methods among other faculty members, many of whom don’t have a background in education scholarship. “You can’t just build a building and expect the faculty to know anything other than lecture-based teaching.”
Ultimately, she wants students to be assessed in areas like writing or ethics within engineering classes. “That’s real integration, rather than just a course plopped in their curriculum,” she argues. “I think we make a mistake by separating the disciplines. We have people with these specialties, but real problems are interdisciplinary.”
Queen’s has also helped Baillie’s work in the developing world. She received a $20,000 award from the university’s applied science faculty in 2005 for her Lesotho research. That project investigated ways to turn locally available agricultural fibers, like agave, and recycled plastic into roofing materials.
But the worlds of engineering education and Baillie’s brand of social activism do not coexist easily.
“It’s popular within universities to work on things which bring in a lot of funding—not ones which take up your time but don’t have huge publication output or funding input,” she says. “Part of what I’m interested in doing is trying to help make this kind of work mainstream . . . good for young faculty to do and still get tenure and promotion.”
“We are trying to make changes so that there are fewer differences between the rich and poor,” she continues. “Some people would worry about their own lives changing for the worse to accommodate this. That’s what makes some of the work unpopular.”
When she can’t get outside funding, as was the case with Waste-for-Life, Baillie substitutes collaboration. In Buenos Aires, she and Feinblatt worked with nine cooperatives, faculty from the University of Buenos Aires, the Swiss nongovernment organization Avina, a micro-credit agency, and scientists from Argentina’s National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI). Each of these partners has helped move the project forward, with members from INTI working with cartonero groups to teach them how to better separate and classify trash, for example.
Closer to home, Baillie and George Catalano, professor of bioengineering at the State University of New York-Binghamton, manage a small network of engineers interested in seeking solutions to poverty.
“There’s a tremendous reluctance to get involved with questions of social justice,” says Catalano, an unabashed Baillie fan. “Being an engineer as a woman is tough enough, but being willing to speak out for a cause that’s not popular, that’s really brave.”
“She has the courage of a lioness but with a really kind heart,” he adds.
Baillie has also turned to the theater world as another venue for addressing issues of social justice. As director of the Critical Stage Company in Kingston, Ontario, she continuously challenges audiences to contemplate the intersection of science and society. Together with Theater Kingston, the company presented Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, about the relationship during World War II between two physicists and former collaborators: Werner Heisenberg, a German, and Neils Bohr, a Dane who later helped the United States develop the atomic bomb. The play explores the lingering historical question of whether Heisenberg tried to use Bohr in Nazi Germany’s drive to get the bomb.
An author of four books and more than 130 other publications on materials science and education, Baillie is perhaps best known for Building the Impossible. This four-part documentary commissioned by the BBC featured a team of experts, including Baillie, who attempted to recreate historical inventions, such as a Roman catapult and a 17th-century wooden submarine. While she wasn’t thrilled about the choice of projects—“boys and their toys,” she says—Baillie gained profound respect for the early engineers who built them. “They respected nature so much more,” she notes. “I really learned a different way of looking at history.”
Drawing on their Buenos Aires experience, Baillie and Feinblatt, a photographer who has taught for many years at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, hope to create a documentary to help students think about development projects. They also want to disseminate a booklet that will help non-engineers understand how to turn recyclables into building tiles.
Baillie recalls that before she embarked on Waste-for-Life, someone urged her to “just to stick to the science; that’s what you know.’” Luckily for the cartoneros of Buenos Aires—and poor communities around the world that can benefit from engineering—Caroline Baillie ignored that advice.
Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.