Between the real and the ideal: Engineers without borders

The humanitarian engineering organisation Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has a long standing and multi-faceted relationship with the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. EWB, as a member-based, community organisation, creates social value through engineering, working towards improved living standards in water, housing, sanitation, education, infrastructure, agriculture, communication, energy and digital access across the globe.

Dr Fiona Johnson (with watering can) and students.

The requirement for membership is that you are passionate about creating a better world, about engineering people out of poverty. As CVEN surveying student Karats Eisenmenger says “I wanted to be a part of something that can really make an impact in the wider community.”

UNSW Engineering staff and students are so committed to a continuing and meaningful partnership with EWB that the alliance forms part of the first year curriculum, as an elective project within the Faculty–wide course Engineering Design and Innovation (ENGG1000). In this project, all UNSW engineering students, along with other engineering students across the globe, are invited to respond to the annual EWB Challenge. Student teams compete to create a real life solution for a real life problem.

In 2015 students were asked to design a system for collecting rain water to prevent flooding, improve sanitation and encourage water conservation ENGG1000 2015 EWB project. Dr Fiona Johnson (with watering can) and students.appropriate for the rural community of Bambui, in the North West region of Cameroon.

Bambui is undergoing rapid urbanization following the construction of a new university in 2012, an urbanization which has increased the pressure on water supplies, sanitation, waste management and housing. Students were asked to design and construct a system for an individual house or building that would a) capture rainfall; b) have a first flush system to prevent contamination; and c) allow for the easy and safe reuse of the water within a house or school. The 2015 challenge partner was Reignite Action for Development, based in Bambui, Cameroon.

In a year where global movements of displaced peoples have risen to distressing levels, the 2016 Challenge was mediated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Over the last 5 years Zambia has agreed to accept 14,000 Angolan and Rawandan refugees. Land has been set aside to develop communities where these refugees will live side by side with local Zambians. International support has been sought for assistance and solutions in areas such as water, shelter, communications, infrastructure and waste. In their very first year of study, engineering students have been asked to meet these challenges creatively and, first hand, to witness the power the discipline of engineering has to positively affect lives.  

The UNSW chapter of EWB is largely run and managed by students. These students, already juggling full time study and paid employment, find the time to take on time consuming responsibilities. CVEN student Melinda Jiang says the time she donates is “too much to count, but I would happily do more.”

These students, in their turn, reach out to other younger students in the School Outreach Program. This program is extended out, away from city centres, in the Regioneering Program, which Karats Eisenmenger calls a “blast”: “Seeing students light up, knowing they can make a difference is hard to forget.” So the cycle continues: young, engaged, concerned and vigorous engineers-in-training carry the word to other, even younger people willing and wanting to listen and help.

Perhaps most significantly EWB seeks to right the wrongs in our own back yard. In recent years it has provide technical support for the restoration of the beloved and dilapidated La Perouse Mission Church: a building of huge cultural significance to the local Aboriginal community.

I wanted to be a part of something that can really make an impact in the wider community

CVEN surveying student Karats Eisenmenger

Even a cursory glance at the UNSW EWB Chapter Facebook page reveals the broad range of vigorous activities: from Outreach Training days to a Sustainable Water Systems workshops to a Coding for Social Change seminar.

Gender diversity is addressed through the connection to Women Without Borders. One post asks “Can a humanitarian focus help alter perceived gender stereotypes within engineering?” Perhaps it already has. A clear majority of executive positions in UNSW EWB chapter are held by women and there is a higher ratio of women involved in EWB generally, when compared to the wider engineering community.

School academic Dr Fiona Johnson co-chairs the UNSW-EWB partnership which provides further opportunities for students to integrate humanitarian engineering with their studies. She encourages her students toward humanitarianism and altruism. “Lots of undergraduates are idealistic and passionate, wanting to know how they might make a difference in the world. If we can inspire them and give them the skills to affect those changes, then that’s pretty cool.”

Dr Johnson tells her students that undergraduate studies are “the best time of your life”, but that it is about “more than just learning”. For her part, Dr Johnson believes it is her role to gather and harness the passion of novice engineers, temper and mature it with technical foundational knowledge, then broaden and mature it with real world realities

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