Introducing Humanitarian Engineering at UNSW

Dr Fiona Johnson explains why the new subject is the logical next step for UNSW Engineering as interest in humanitarian engineering swells among students, academics and researchers.

Collecting Mikania weed near Amaltari Village, Nepal (photo Fiona Johnson)

To accommodate the fast-growing interest in humanitarian engineering, and complement the activities already underway, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CVEN) is leading the development of a new multidisciplinary course called Fundamentals of Humanitarian Engineering. The course will be offered to third year students from 2018, and centres on how to create the best engineering solutions to increase the wellbeing and welfare of individuals and communities in disadvantaged circumstances all over the world.

Dr Fiona Johnson, Senior Lecturer in CVEN, is one of the academics leading the development of the course that she says will become a Faculty-wide specialisation. “There is a real need to create ‘global citizen engineers’ who can address humanitarian problems faced by societies around the world,” Johnson says. “Over the last few years there has been a rapid expansion of humanitarian engineering Student-Led Projects and research activities across the Faculty. The next logical step was to build on that foundation and introduce a subject that would allow undergraduate students to develop their capabilities in humanitarian engineering as part of their degree.

There is a real need to create ‘global citizen engineers’ who can address humanitarian problems faced by societies around the world.

Dr Fiona Johnson, Senior Lecturer, UNSW Civil and Environmental Engineering

“Although we’ve had ad-hoc offerings in this space for many years, we’ve had a more structured approach more recently through our partnership with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and our involvement in the annual EWB Challenge. In addition, students have been running UNSW chapters of EWB and Engineering World Health on campus for some time.”

Johnson explains that humanitarian engineering is a human-centred approach that focuses on two main areas: disaster response and preparedness, and long-term sustainable community development. “Engineers have important roles to play in terms of the way that they can solve these types of logistical challenges,” Johnson says.

She says the concepts of “appropriate technology” and “capacity building” are fundamental to this subject. They provide context in the planning and design of infrastructure and technology in areas such as water and waste management, energy supply and distribution, and assistive technologies. Students will learn through case studies, guest lectures and workshops that illustrate humanitarian engineering principles. 

Johnson, who co-chairs UNSW’s EWB partnership, has a long-held interest and first-hand experience in humanitarian engineering through her volunteer work with the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program. She is very excited about the prospects for the new subject.

On completion, students will have a really practical understanding of their ethical responsibilities as engineers and how they can contribute to making a real difference,” she says. “I’d like to think that it will also broaden their thinking from just that technical side of numbers to the greater ‘human idea’. I think they’ll see that it is a mix of skills that makes for a well-rounded engineer.”

PLuS alliance team with LIBIRD staff and local residents in the Madhyabindu Climate Smart Village, Nepal (photo LIBIRD)

Can you help?

If you’re an engineer working in any area of humanitarian engineering and would like to contribute your experience and expertise, we would welcome your input. Please contact Fiona Johnson,, for more information. 

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