Fall 2016

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Innovation with Heart

One of the perks of interviewing researchers for Terra is the chance to get a front-row seat on the occasional surprise. Last summer, when I walked into engineering professor Kendra Sharp’s office, her computer screen displayed a rash of red pins across a worldwide Google map. Each pin marked the location of a person who had contacted her about software that she had developed to analyze the potential for small-scale electrical power generation in rivers.

Local hydropower isn’t the kind of thing to go viral on Facebook or Twitter. These queries were prompted by an Oregon State University news release, which had been publicized by news media in India, China, Europe and Mexico as well as Canada and the United States. e response wasn’t all that surprising to Sharp who participates in the International Development Innovation Network, a movement to bring scientists and engineers together with community organizers. She and her colleagues apply technology to solve problems in health care, agriculture, energy and other fields.

At Oregon State, Sharp also leads the growing humanitarian engineering program, which provides students the chance to apply technical skill to human need. In the process, they gain invaluable insight into what it takes to make meaningful change. Technology is a powerful force for social good, but realizing that goal takes a willingness to listen and learn from the people whose lives are at stake. I think of it as innovation with heart.

The impact could go well beyond specific projects, such as Oregon State’s work with Ugandan women suffering from obstetric stula as described in “Lessons in Resilience” in this issue of Terra. A 2014 Princeton University study found that scientists and engineers are generally seen by Americans as smart and competent but not particularly warm or caring. That could lead, the researchers said, to a willingness among people to distrust or even to resent experts who offer science-based information, new technologies or innovative approaches to problems.

When I talk to students about their work, I frequently hear them express a strong desire to solve problems and make the world a better place. They know that technical skill is essential but not enough. Understanding and sharing through language, history, art and other disciplines are also necessary.

In every college at Oregon State, students are working with nonprofits, government agencies and businesses across Oregon and the world. Sharp’s efforts are just one example of the opportunities that give OSU students deep experience at the outset of their careers.

— Nick Houtman, Editor