Why train engineers to be more compassionate?

The founder of Engineers Without Borders now runs the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado. He talks about what's wrong with our old model for engineering education.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive on

At a recent National Building Museum event, I heard inspiring stories from members of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which was being recognized with the 2010 Henry C. Turner Prize for Innovation in Construction Technology. The group connects engineering students with infrastructure projects in 45 developing countries around the world.

I later called the founder of EWB, Bernard Amadei. He is now the director of the Mortensen Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado. Amadei talked to me about what’s lacking in Western engineering, the need for emergency engineering, and why we need to focus on creating fewer “nerdy engineers and more compassionate engineers.”

You started Engineers Without Borders about a decade ago. Are you still involved with that work?

I don’t get involved with EWB per se. For a while I was executive director and president, and now the organization has grown to about 12,000 members and has about 24 people on staff.

Around the same time as I started EWB I started Engineering in Developing Communities at the University of Colorado. How do you train engineers for addressing community development? That’s the reason I started the program.

This year we received a $5 million endowment from Mortenson Construction to make it a center. Like EWB, it has been successful. We have graduate students working on this kind of engineering and humanitarian development. The program’s goal is to create a new generation of engineers to address the needs of the five billion people whose job it is to stay alive by the end of the day. Last year we had 17 graduate students; this year we had 44. Half of them are women.

Is there anything like the Mortenson Center at other universities?

No. That program is unique. All our students have to go to the field for four to six weeks. Peru, Nepal, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Also here in the U.S. on Indian reservations. There they learn the ropes. They learn how the community works. They do an assessment of the community, they identify the program, they identify the solutions. They do something more holistic than what EWB is doing. EWB might be interested in installing a water pump, which is fine, but I want to know: Is water the main issue? How is it related to job creation? It’s the big picture. I like that approach, obviously.

One of the things that surprised me when I heard EWB stories from the panelists is that they found the people in these developing communities often knew the solutions to their problems before the engineers showed up.

Listen to the community. Small is Beautiful [Economics As If People Mattered] by Schumacher says learn what people do best and help them do it better. Rather than the neo-colonialism approach: Give them some money, give them some water pumps. Sixty percent of water pumps installed in developing countries fail after six months. Why? Because nobody is there to tell them how to fix it. That’s what I call bad engineering. It wasn’t designed by engineers. It was designed by politicians or lawyers. [The people] have lived in these communities for a long time. They know how to handle flood and drought and crisis. We don’t.

What have you personally learned from these countries?

Humility, humility and humility. I’ve learned to listen

Is that what’s lacking in Western engineering?

Absolutely. The April 17, 2010 issue of The Economist is about the world turned upside down, with innovation in emerging markets. I think everyone in the western world should read this. There’s a lot of innovation in the developing world right now that we need to pay attention to.

What areas of engineering are you focused on now?

Right now, I’m looking more specifically at engineering in emergencies.

What does that mean?

It’s like when you go to the doctor. You go there because you have deep pain and they try to identify quick solutions. So in Haiti, what kind of engineering do you have in place two hours after an earthquake? Or a week? Or six months? How do you do the same for providing clean water, hygiene or sanitation? That’s an area of engineering that has yet to be created. Nobody is doing that.

How do engineers prepare a region for emergencies?

You build up in different areas. You build strong infrastructure, strong government, strong technologies, strong materials. Look at San Francisco. If an earthquake hits San Francisco, you don’t hear about many people dying. In Haiti, 240,000 died. We need resilient institutions, and engineers who know how to build resilient things.

With emergency engineering, what would you focus on first?

I think there’s a need for shelter. In Haiti, that’s number one. Right now, I think Haiti’s getting out of the rapid response phase, but there’s no recovery phase. The Red Cross was there, the Army was there, CARE International was there, UNICEF was there. What’s next? You go there, and you still find 1.6 million people living in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Natural hazards will take place for a long time. The impact of these hazards will be felt more often. You could have earthquake followed by flood, followed by security issues. Look at Pakistan with the floods; it’s not just an isolated event.

How do you teach this to your students?

We teach them the framework. The way of doing more global engineering versus specific. Today we hear about globalization. How do we train engineers to make global solutions to global problems? We don’t. When you tell someone you’re an engineer, it’s a civil engineer, electrical engineer, aerospace engineer, mechanical engineer. But if I go to a village in Africa, I don’t bring all these engineers and say, “You go to the left, you go to the right.” The problems cut across many disciplines, yet our engineers aren’t trained across the disciplines. So it’s Reinventing Engineering 1.0. It’s creating engineers who can think globally and act locally.

Are there other countries that are already doing this?

I don’t think so. Traditional engineering education is very traditional. The old saying, that if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime--it’s beyond that. It’s creating a fishing industry. They not only need to be able to fish, but to skin the fish and everything else.

What else are you working on?

I’m working on a book, Engineering with Soul. The focus is on creating less nerdy engineers and more compassionate engineers. Go on any campus and look for the engineering building, and it’s probably the ugliest building on campus. And you meet some nerdy people there. We need to change it.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards