Building Bridges – Part 3 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Building Bridges – Part 3 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

After the reading about innovative cook stoves in my junior year of college (described here), the professor (Dr. Kammen) announced a talk about cook stoves. The talk was centered on an initiative to fund cook stoves as a way to reduce indoor air pollution and invited the class to attend. The presenter stated that the principal goal was to raise 50 million dollars to fund a project that would provide seed money for communities. This would grow local businesses that developed and built the stoves, and burned cleaner to reduce indoor air pollution. Over fifty percent of the world’s population uses biomass, such as wood or dung, for cooking. Many of these stoves create tiny particles that build up in the homes result in significant adverse effect on human health.

During a break, I headed to the snack bar and talked with a graduate student studying public policy. We discussed the fact that there is little co-mingling among students in different disciplines. I was probably the only engineer in the room, and I thought this was a topic in which engineers should be engaged in. She also said there was not much attempt within public policy to work with engineers. We agreed that greater collaboration was necessary.

I had to leave the talk early to go to my bio-chemical engineering course. Usually, the class consisted of lectures on formulas describing bio-reactions, such as calculating the reduction in reaction time that accompanies the use of a catalyst. This course was a chemical engineering elective, and I chose it either because it seemed the most interesting to me or because it fit in my schedule. I don’t remember.

This day, however, was unique. We had a guest lecturer, the vice president of a large pharmaceutical company. The guest lecturer described the process required to bring a drug onto the market, including the clinical trials, patents, potential governmental blocks, and the costs that it entails. He used the example of a cancer drug that cost billions of dollars to develop and required many years to receive FDA approval. He concluded the talk by reading a heartfelt letter from a woman who had cancer and was able to live longer because of the drug he and his company produced.

Connection to my Journey

Two things struck me that day. First was the separation on campus—the lack of discussion across disciplines—and the second was the inequality it represents. The engineers were not present at the cook stove talk, as that was not considered a normal topic for them. Although I don’t think engineers should go out and design all the cook stoves—the last post highlighted why that wouldn’t work—they should be involved in the discussion of appropriate technology.

The second thing that struck me was the inequality of the situation. The problems engineers faced were much more likely to impact wealthy populations and not marginalized populations. Engineers were being presented a picture that the way to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives was through major industries, like pharmaceuticals, in the comfort of their own classrooms. Large industry has a significant influence on engineering education in the United States. They serve on advisory committees, providing input on graduation requirements and courses, and in my experience that day, even the vice presidents comes in and gives lectures to the class. Thus, engineering students are presented with a clear career pathway into industry through the universities and professional societies, while I did not see any pathway present to serve disenfranchised communities.

This is the day that I discovered my passion—to build bridges: engineering, and social —and thereby open more pathways for engineers to make a meaningful contribution in marginalized communities.

I should mention that since Fall 2005, the time I am writing about here, I have learned about many engineering programs that do a good job introducing engineering students to social and environmental contexts. Here are a few – Engineering service-learning and community engagement programs, such as Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) at Purdue, the Global Project Program (GPP) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Community Playground Project at Louisiana State University (LSU), and Humanitarian Engineering Major at Colorado School of Mines. The first three were cases for my dissertation work, and I know these programs well. This list programs are just a few that intentionally embed the engineering context in real life social and environmental context.

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Image Creating Solutions illustrated by Frits Ahlefeldt 

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