Silent Traditions- Part 2 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Silent Traditions- Part 2 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

The same semester that I started to prioritize my interests, I took an energy and society course and read the article, “The Silent Traditions of Developing Cooks,” by Emma Crewe. This paper initiated my reflections on the “silent traditions” of engineering and how the education system perpetuates these traditions.

In the paper, Dr. Crewe described how Americans and Europeans attempted to provide aid through cook stoves in Asia and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. These projects were being funded based on the premise that new stoves would save trees, help poor women, provide opportunities for local artisans, and reduce pollution. The “developers” were known as “stovies” and were largely mechanical engineers and energy experts with economics backgrounds. In their attempt to help people in Asia and Africa, the “stovies” came face to face with their own “silent traditions,” underlying cultural norms that ultimately resulted in the projects’ failure. Here are two incorrect assumptions the developers made through their work.

  1. Fuelwood crisis

The push to develop cook stoves was largely driven by the wood fuel crisis, a concern that the growing population of households that used biomass for their main energy production would be a main driver in deforestation. However, the “experts” on these development projects did not recognize that the greatest threat to deforestation was the clearing of land for agriculture, and not for fuel. Once the fuelwood crisis was debunked, donors began to pull their funding. It was at this time that the real needs of the community emerged, such as the need to address indoor air pollution.

Basically, the stoves were well-funded when they were useless and the funding stopped as soon as the designs started to meet the needs of the communities.

  1. Not validating the (female) users expertise

Because of the threat of deforestation, the first round of stoves focused primarily on fuel efficiency and did not prioritize the users’ experience. The stoves were designed by technical experts (mainly male engineers) and did not include the people using the stoves (mainly women). Among the engineers was an expected norm that the local customs were “backward” and were inferior to the scientific approach of the West. Additionally, women’s work was seen as inferior and disconnected from technology. These beliefs resulted in engineers working on these stoves specifically for fuel efficiency and not the cooking desires of the users. Later studies showed that many of the stoves designed by engineers were less efficient than the previous practices of the female uses. For example, Zimbabwean cooks used less fuel by building a wall around an open flame and immediately extinguishing the flame once they were done cooking, while the engineers were focused on not having an open flame to save on efficiency.

The connection to my journey

Reading this paper as an undergraduate student was an insightful experience and began a personal paradigm shift. At that time, if I were to design a stove for a community in Kenya, I would probably have done exactly what those engineers did. I would have thought that I needed to design for fuel efficiency and would have been blinded by all other dynamics. I am ashamed to say that I held many of the same assumptions and did not considering larger social issues, such as environmental degradation, gender dynamics, and power/privilege within the scope of engineering. Yet, these topics influenced engineering design.

In recent years, I have seen students at a sustainability conference highlighting their stove designs for villages in Haiti, saying that the cost was only $10 (something that would be out of reach for a Haitian) and requiring parts that would not be available on the island.

It may be easy to see the importance of these issues in the context of cookstoves; yet, similar dynamics are present throughout our society. How often do the engineers who design the distillation towers at the oil refinery recognize the communities that live downwind of these towers? Or the environmental lifecycle of the office chair? Before I read this article, I saw these concerns for “someone else”– the non-engineer. I did not know who this “person” was, but it was not me.

Now, I realize that I was a person in this “design,” that I had a responsibility to learn about the world and not just answer problems to make sure that a bridge did not collapse. I also realized that the education system has a responsibility to train students to address societal problems. If engineers are not taught about the social complexities they are situated in, and only are taught to use specific information needed to solve the problem given, they will continue to just do the work in front of them. We need complex thinkers, not cogs in a machine.

Personal Reflection

I am feeling confident about this post, and also a bit suspicious of my confidence. I got positive feedback from the first one, and that eased my worries a bit. I think this post in particular is well-written and gets to the heart of many issues. However, I have in the past thought that I was being coherent and grounded, but I wasn’t. I am pretty sure that is not happening here, but that fear is still present in me.

For a head’s up, I will be posting my story every Thursday. I have gotten a handful of people committed to contributing to the site (yay!). When the stories start coming in I will be posting those on Tuesdays.


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