New Humanitarian Engineering Programs Aim to Use STEM for Social Good

Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 18, 2016 at 11:01 am
New Humanitarian Engineering Programs Aim to Use STEM for Social Good

Humanitarians come in all shapes and sizes.  Every skill set can be used to help citizens of the world overcome challenges.  And new engineering programs are focusing on combining a technology-driven career path with a desire to think outside yourself.

Oregon State University is the latest school to offer a degree in Humanitarian Engineering, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.  The idea is for engineering in context – the engineering challenges of the future will involve problem-solving not just in high-rises or high-tech fields but also in the developing world.

The program’s website explains, “We define humanitarian engineering as the co-development of science or engineering-based solutions to improve the human condition, namely through improved access to basic human needs (e.g., clean water, clean energy), an improved quality of life, or improved level of community resilience (e.g. disaster mitigation, economic resilience).”

As a multi-disciplinary program, humanitarian engineering may also be a way to increase gender and racial diversity into a fairly traditional field.  STEM jobs are projected to see a lot of growth in coming years, so targeting a broader swathe of young people early on only makes sense.  Typically, those interested in helping professions are a different population that those who focus on engineering (one recent study found, for example, that African-American students gravitate more toward majors in human services and community organization than STEM).  With Oregon State’s mashup, a world of possibility exists for both interests to come together.

Before the full degree was developed at OSU, the engineering department already participated in the volunteer group Engineers Without Borders.  This organization exists in both the United Kingdom and United States, with chapters all over the nations.  Their tagline is “Unleashing Great Minds on Great Problems.”

The Peace Corps may be the best example of humanitarian work using all types of skills, from doctors and engineers to English teachers and sheer heavy lifting.  OSU’s Peace Corps Masters International is already in place and will work with the newer degree.

Future engineering programs in Britain are focusing on a more global perspective as a means of recruitment for young people considering STEM careers.  And the current refugee crisis is certainly drawing more attention to the potential to use STEM and other skills to help people.  At Ohio State University, innovative work is being done to make STEM more accessible and less costly at the K-12 level.  This focus is valuable on a global scale, but also for high-poverty school districts in the US where STEM programs are traditionally underfunded.

Combining engineering with global citizenship is an exciting trend that can be expected to grow.  Today’s young people are more aware of the world around them than ever before—both in terms of inequality and potential.  Harnessing that sense of justice, along with solid engineering skills, can open doors for a wide variety of students to be involved in meaningful work.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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