11 January 2016

Matt Winthrop

Engineering Insight: Leading the Human Touch

  • Student Hannah Wells has her work assessed for the EWB International Challenge by Dr Aruna Shekar, Andrew Drain and Associate Professor Jane Goodyer.
  • Sofia Lardies (bottom right) EWB volunteer in Vanuatu, with an organisation called Live and Learn. Photo: EWB.
  • Students building a reciprocal frame out of bamboo for a relief shelter as part of the Headstart programme. Photo: Coventry University.

UNITWIN is the abbreviation for the university twinning and networking scheme. This scheme, which was established as a result of a UNESCO resolution adopted in 1991, serves as a prime means of building the capacities of higher education and research institutions through the exchange of knowledge and sharing, in a spirit of international solidarity.

Engineers are defined by their ability to solve problems: but how do they go about confronting some of the biggest social crises of today and the future? Massey University’s Jane Goodyer is at the forefront of a cross-disciplinary branch of engineering that’s addressing the challenge.

Jane was selected to lead a humanitarian engineering initiative at Massey last year, where she’s an Associate Professor at the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology. Massey is one of four universities involved in the initiative, known as UNESCO UNITWIN in Humanitarian Engineering, with the others in the United Kingdom, Tanzania and Malta.

About the programme

UNITWIN is an inter-university networking and knowledge sharing programme that provides engineering solutions for those who lack the means to provide for themselves. Through this network, higher education and research institutions all over the globe pool their resources, both human and material, to address pressing challenges and contribute to the development of their societies. As Massey’s lead, Jane drives New Zealand’s efforts into research and scoping opportunities.

“It’s about capacity building, establishing new teaching programmes, generating new ideas through research. Success depends on financial and in-kind support, which UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] doesn’t provide. UNESCO only offers its services in helping mobilise resources – that is, we leverage off their name to obtain funding.”

Humanitarian engineering, which is at the heart of the UNITWIN programme, involves anything from developing new breathing apparatus for community-run medical clinics to providing off-grid solar electricity in remote villages. It puts the emphasis on using technology to improve people’s social and living conditions, as opposed to the traditional, business-centric model.

Jane says with the myriad social challenges currently facing the world, not least the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, engineering solutions to humanitarian problems will be increasingly sought-after.

“Humanitarian engineering is about having a forward-thinking view: investing in what adds value to society, looking at how to use our nous to apply technology appropriately and cheaply into areas that need it.”

However, its wider uptake in engineering practice will necessitate a cultural shift within the profession.

“How are we going to deal with the technological, behavioural, ethical and social changes of the future? It’s important to have a solid understanding of what engineering is and where it needs to go. It’s apparent that today’s young engineers will need to be much more outwardly focused.”

Teaching engineers

Jane has made humanitarianism a part of the engineering curriculum at Massey. First-year students take part in the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) International Challenge, a programme that delivers engineering solutions to real-world problems for communities in need.

Normally, the EWB Challenge is an extracurricular activity, a small part of the curriculum or comprises a mini-project. At Massey, however, students spend an entire semester involved in an EWB project. Jane says this is an excellent way of introducing students to engineering.

“Some students think that being an engineer means sitting in front of a computer doing ‘big maths’ or whatever, or perhaps something very hands-on. When I talk to them, I try to make the point that actually, as an engineer you’ve got to be a really good communicator who’s able to empathise with people or companies. I’m not just talking humanitarian: in business you’re trying to help. To be able to understand a client’s requirements, you can’t just rely on technical ability.”

A group of Massey students who last year took part in the EWB Challenge (and, incidentally, won the competition) created a stove for Nepalese villagers which vents cooking smoke outside rather than inside. Course Co-ordinator at Massey, Dr Aruna Shekar, says the students were able to come up with a meaningful solution by empathising with the people they were helping. “In this case, these students learnt that Nepalese women and children spend many hours gathering firewood for cooking and most hours in a cramped kitchen full of smoke. Hence they were keen to create a better stove that also fits well into the Nepalese lifestyle.”

Jane says while “humanitarian” has connotations of internationalism – helping Syrian refugees, for example – humanitarian engineering needn’t necessarily involve addressing problems on the other side of the world.

“Some people think it’s just about strife, earthquakes and so forth. It’s actually much broader than that. It’s also about helping either communities or individuals who find it hard to help themselves and delivering technology that can allow them to do that. It could mean assisting a young person in Palmerston North who’s partially sighted, say, whose parents don’t have the means to support them.”

Developing diversity

The task at hand, Jane says, is to overcome common perceptions about what engineering is and what it’s capable of achieving. Central to this will be how we promote it as a viable career choice for a future generation of engineers – especially young women. She has long held some fairly “non-traditional” views about engineering, including a desperate need for the profession to embrace diversity, and believes empathy, along with technical competence, should be promoted as one of engineering’s main skill sets.

Jane also sees a lack of context as partly to blame for so few women entering the profession.

“Maths, chemistry, physics: where’s the context? What’s the point of pushing a solid object up a slope at five degrees and calculating drag? We have a challenge on our hands to get young people to relate to science and maths so they’re able to solve problems they come across in day-to-day life, to really inspire them.

“We need to get young people excited about studying maths, chemistry and physics and where this could lead to.

“We need to get young people excited about studying maths, chemistry and physics and where this could lead to.”

 “There are many obstacles to young women sticking with physics, which along with maths has a problem with lack of context. So many bright young women aren’t studying physics, which cuts them off to engineering. It’s a real shame.”

The statistics speak for themselves: a study carried out by IPENZ showed that in 2013, just 13 per cent of professional engineers and 16 per cent of engineering technicians were female. In Australia, just 11.8 per cent of qualified engineers were female (2011), while in the United Kingdom the proportion was seven per cent (2014).

The profession’s image problem is another contributing factor. Engineering might involve donning hard hats and hi-vis, or producing complicated digital renderings, but there’s so much more to it than that. The solution to attracting more bright young minds to the profession lies in challenging these types of deeply-ingrained views.

“A small amount of an engineer’s time is actually spent on ‘engineering’. On any one day an engineer might be co-ordinating people, managing processes, ensuring compliance to technical standards, doing business development or finance. More young people, and especially young women, will likely consider an engineering career if we get them to understand what being an engineer actually involves,” Jane says.

She points to a United Kingdom study in which children were asked to describe engineering. Initially, with their only knowledge stemming from what adults had told them, they used words like “messy”, “machines” and “what my dad does”. However, on been given more information about engineering as a career, they used words like “inventive”, “exciting”, “lots of choices” and “interesting”. This is a big issue, Jane says. If the “influencers” – the parents and teachers – can’t properly explain engineering, how are children supposed to form an accurate picture of the profession? To advance the cause, Jane is making the most of her leadership role with UNITWIN. “It’s given me more clout to approach bodies like the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has invested in workshops in humanitarian engineering being trialled in schools in the United Kingdom. The workshops are aimed at 13- to 17-year-olds and are focused on getting students to see how engineering can help society. They’ll use young people, not an older person like myself, to run an after-school series of workshops. Students look at issues like flooding, sanitation and sustainable energy.”

Communicating well is vital

For engineering to evolve into a more diverse, outwardly focused profession, Jane believes good communication will be crucial – quite simply, engineers need to be able to explain to others what they do. “We’re not great promoters because we just don’t see that as part of our job. It comes down to getting the right people to communicate, in a compelling and exciting way, what they do as an engineer.

“We’ve really got an issue with explaining what engineering is so that people can actually say, ‘My child would be good at that. My daughter would be good at that’.”

Jane is currently looking to see if the initiative could be converted for the New Zealand context via IPENZ’s schools outreach programmes, Futureintech and Engineering Education-to-Employment. The secondary school years are critical, she says – it’s when students either form firm ideas about their future career path or are stopped in their tracks. “We’ve got to work more with teachers, to help those who know little about engineering to be able to properly inform students who mightn’t otherwise have considered it as a career option.”

Setting young people on course for a career in a profession the world needs more now than ever before – if you’re an educator, what could be more rewarding than that?