humanitarian engineering
A member of the International Red Cross organizes boxes with humanitarian aid at the Regional Logistics Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (CLRAH) in Panama City on April 08, 2020. Source: Luis Acosta/AFP

Historically, students have sat comfortably into a socially conscious category as early adopters of change. They were one of the earliest to protest or tackle issues that impact their future, whether it’s war, civil rights, abortion, gender equality or the environment.

In many ways, the field of humanitarian engineering (HE) fits neatly into those principles — of challenging a problem and collectively devising a solution.

Shrewd design innovations to address international humanitarian needs are being developed all the time.

At universities, however, this field of engineering is still notably under-represented. Why?

Khanjan Mehta, founding director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship programme at Penn State University and director of the Mountaintop Initiative at Lehigh University, USA, is an advocate for HE and has led various education programmes over the last decade.

“For students who want to leverage their engineering education to improve the human condition, HE provides a wonderful backdrop or focal area for their education,” he told Study International in an interview.

“It integrates a rigorous engineering education with a liberal arts education that involves a series of hands-on experiences in understanding problems faced by low and middle-income countries and allows you to actually co-create practical, sustainable, and scalable solutions.”

humanitarian engineering

A Syrian child receives food distributed by a humanitarian aid worker at a makeshift camp for displaced people, near the village of Yazi Bagh, about six kilometres from the Bab al-Salamah border crossing between Syria and Turkey in the north of Aleppo province, on February 7, 2018. Source: Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP

Going against tradition

In his book, “Solving Problems That Matter and Getting Paid for It,” Mehta discusses the value of this type of engineering from both an altruistic and economic vantage. He understands that traditionally, clear career pathways have often been more widely recognised and promoted for other engineering subjects.

“Humanitarian engineering by itself is not as exciting as integrating HE with social enterprise as the focus is then on doing, not just learning. The career pathways for mechanical, civil and petroleum engineers are well-defined and long understood,” he said.

“But, as career avenues for HE graduates become clearer and more apparent, I expect to see more and more HE programmes emerging — especially as a secondary degree to a traditional engineering discipline.”

However, Mehta implies it’s not for everyone and notes the core value to be the way in which an HE degree can alter a student’s approach to the world.

“I think you really need to enter humanitarian engineering with the right mind-set. While this is quickly changing, traditional engineering disciplines often fixate too much on engineering a widget or process in a specific setting.”

“This field,” says Mehta, “takes a fundamentally different human-centred and systemic approach on how you can help improve the quality of life for people by designing context-appropriate technology solutions.”

humanitarian engineering

Palestinian labourers work at a construction site on April 4, 2013, as part of a re-housing Saudi-funded project led by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. From construction to healthcare, humanitarian engineers are needed in many fields. Source: Said Khatib/AFP

“There is this understanding that designing the technology is just five percent of the work. The other 95 percent involves a wide range of social, political, economic, environmental, legal considerations. It’s fundamentally about building and influencing complex systems,” he adds.

He describes a typical project led by his HE students at Lehigh that involved helping to lower maternal mortality rates in Sierra Leone.

The Ukweli Test Strips project conducted in West Africa involved students developing a simple, affordable medical test strip technology that can assess three parameters — leucocytes, nitrates, and protein.

It helps to screen for both UTIs and pre-eclampsia, which are things that can commonly endanger a pregnancy, especially in rural West African settings. These are all conditions that are easily treatable and manageable in many other countries but can be life-threatening in countries with poor healthcare systems.

He has many more examples of interesting projects his students have led.

At Lehigh, there is currently a programme called the Global Social Impact Fellowship (GSIF) to assist the transition from education to work. Selected undergraduate and graduate students go on faculty-guided fieldwork with local partners that address sustainable development challenges in low-income countries.

“The courses, workshops, retreats, and immersive experiences of this programme integrate experiential learning, research, and entrepreneurial engagement with students leading original and ambitious projects with in-country partners in diverse countries,” he explained.

“Through engaging in meaningful, authentic, and incredibly alive projects, fellows develop a mind that can solve complex societal challenges. They go on to build sustainable enterprises, publish their works in peer-reviewed journals, integrate insights into national policies and champion social movements that influence people’s lives.”

For Naakesh Gomanie, a GSIF HE student at Lehigh, the choice to enter this area of study was compounded by series of factors.

“When I got involved with this sector, I was really looking for something that bridged my interests of ethics, engineering, critical thinking, healthcare and doing things that actually mattered.”

humanitarian engineering

A worker uses a trailer to load relief goods to be given to Japan at a warehouse in New Taipei City in northern Taiwan on March 13, 2011. The relief goods, donated by Taiwan’s Red Cross Society, will be transported to their quake-stricken neighbour on March 14 to assist in the recovery after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11. Source: Patrick Lin/AFP

Now specialising in systems engineering and global health, Gomanie adds that the course has played a greater role than expected: “I was drawn to HE because it brought a diverse, interdisciplinary set of players to the table to solve complex and dynamic issues. It has shaped my integrated degree but also helped me build my identity.

“For me, HE has been a nexus of experience learning, self-discovery and impact-oriented projects,” says Naakesh.

But, where are the courses?

Courses are limited but they are growing in number. At present, the vast majority of top HE courses are based in the US. Although Australia has also seen an increase in HE degree programmes at its universities due to rising demand from students over the last few years, particularly women.

In Europe, standout institutions offering HE degrees include the University of Warwick and University of Manchester in the UK. Italy and Sweden also offer distinct programmes.

While Mehta understands there is still room for more HE programmes at international higher education institutions, he adds there are plenty of high-quality programmes available for those truly passionate about pursuing the subject.

“A growing number of universities are now offering majors, minors, or certificates in this area. Instead of being fixated on the courses and certifications offered, I would encourage students to look under the hood and identify programmes that are moving beyond the learning about impact, to actually delivering sustainable impact,” he advised.

“Some of my favourite programmes in this space are offered at Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, Villanova, Oregon State, Penn State, and of course Lehigh. Ultimately, the value of an HE degree is not so much in preparing students for social impact-focused careers. It’s for the transferrable skills it builds in you, to take on all sectors of society.”

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