By Kendra Sharp, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering
Engineers excel at solving problems. They can design systems that provide clean drinking water, generate electricity from sunlight and improve personal health. While the design of these systems demands technical skill, success or failure ultimately resides with the people who use and maintain them and whose lives depend on them — that is, with a social network.
Our students want to understand that meaningful context. They come to us with a desire to make an impact with their lives, and Oregon State is embracing the challenge. We have launched a Humanitarian Engineering program (HE@OSU) to offer a transformational education focused on problem-solving and a deep understanding of culture and social relationships.
Nationally, engineering education may not be living up to this vision. In fact, Erin Cech, a sociologist at Rice University, recently noted that engineering education may foster a “culture of disengagement.” In a survey of more than 300 engineering students at four universities in the Northeast, she tracked students’ perceptions of cultural factors, such as public welfare, social consciousness and understanding of the consequences of technology. Cech found that after four years of college, the students were less concerned about public welfare than when they entered.
Humanitarian engineering means developing solutions in partnership with communities.
This provocative result challenges us as educators. Indeed, as we endeavor to ensure students’ competence in fundamental engineering concepts, it’s all too easy to lose sight of what it means to be an engineer: to create solutions for difficult problems, to be aware of the context within which these problems arise and to anticipate the potential consequences of our solutions.
As engineering educators, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We need to engage the millennial generation, open up opportunities to connect engineering to community service and encourage creative problem-solvers to understand the importance of community engagement. These skills are as important for a corporate client as they are for a village halfway around the world.
Humanitarian engineering means developing solutions in partnership with communities. Examples include designing easy-to-maintain water filters, composting toilets, renewable energy systems, wastewater systems, communication systems, vulnerability assessments of local infrastructure and more. Our curriculum will include ethics, social-science methodologies, engineering design for low-resource environments and multidisciplinary case studies of development projects.
We’re well positioned to succeed. Oregon State has tremendous strengths in engineering for global development and strong connections to public, nonprofit and business organizations around the world. We have an award-winning student chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Our HE@OSU team consists of committed faculty from across campus: engineering, public health, social sciences, humanities and natural resources.
The timing is right for HE@OSU. Our emphasis on engagement is a great fit for the university’s ethos of service and commitment to a healthy planet. We are poised to be a leader in this field. Our students expect nothing less.