Humanitarian Engineering Has Big Plans

By Kirsten Allen

humanitarianengineering1There are a lot of stereotypes about engineers: they’re dull, boring, uncreative automatons who have a crazy love affair with math. The list sadly can go on and on. Fortunately, there’s something that can smash these stereotypes and it’s called humanitarian engineering.

Put simply, humanitarian engineering is an attempt to better the world—or, more specifically, to improve the lives of disadvantaged communities through engineering strategies and techniques. Humanitarian engineering often involves finding creative solutions to problems of serious consequence to a community. Examples of humanitarian engineering projects could include building and installing solar panels in a remote village in Malaysia, building wells in rural villages in Kenya, or designing an affordable water filtration device.

Right now, there are only two academic institutions in the United States with humanitarian engineering programs. Oregon State University looks to be the third.

OSU has plans to introduce a humanitarian engineering minor at the beginning of the next academic year. “It’s a huge win for us at OSU. I think students are really attracted to something like this,” stated OSU mechanical engineering professor Kendra Sharp. Sharp was among the many faculty members at Oregon State instrumental in advocating for the minor. “There has been student interest in this type of minor across the country,” said Sharp. A group of faculty at Oregon State began to advocate with the dean to push it forward. As they began to get things rolling, they saw a rise in student interest.

The goal of the minor is to add to the undergraduate experience of students and provide them with engineering training in context. There’s a very simple and practical reason for this. Without an awareness of the inherent interdisciplinary education necessary to complete complex tasks, projects tend to run longer, cost more, are less efficient, or simply fail.

2015-01-07_2220The idea for the minor surfaced a couple years ago largely within the College of Engineering. Projects undertaken in low-resource environments don’t usually have strictly engineering solutions, but rather need to incorporate a wide variety of skills. “We have a leadership team made of faculty and staff from engineering, public health, liberal arts, and forestry, which allows us to represent an interesting distribution of different disciplines and orientations,” said Charles Robinson, another faculty member at Oregon State involved in advocating for the minor.

The minor will involve some core coursework outside of engineering (families in poverty, global health studies, social sciences, anthropology, international development), but will be for students who have an engineering major. The core classes will be open to both graduate and undergraduate students. OSU does plan to provide a parallel minor in the College of Liberal Arts which will share much of the same core coursework and structure. The intent is to make the coursework accessible at the undergraduate level to anyone interested at OSU and not have it limited to only engineering students.

Funding, as always, is expected to pose a challenge. Oregon State has a strong record of sending students into the field to study, and with the humanitarian engineering minor, and possibly the parallel liberal arts minor, students will have even more opportunity to immerse themselves into real world applications in their field of study. “There is so much opportunity for practical applications of skills to compelling real world challenges,” said Sharp. “I’d love to see all the graduate students have a field immersion.”

Learn more about the humanitarian engineering program at OSU at http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/heatosu.

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