Engineering Solutions to Development Needs

A Penn State engineering student helps Kenyan farmers find telemedicine resources, newly available in their village thanks to work done through the university's Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program.

A Penn State engineering student helps Kenyan farmers find telemedicine resources, newly available in their village thanks to work done through the university's Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program.

What people live without

First, take away reliable sanitation systems. Then, remove durable shelter. Finally, subtract electricity. Think people living under these conditions would feel alone? Actually, they would have a lot of company. Over a billion people around the world live like this every day.

Solutions to these problems involve vexing challenges across multiple, varied fields, including politics, economics, geography, language, and culture, to name just some.

Tacking towards answers

However, the engineering angle on these development problems can sometimes show the way to a solution. This is, at least, the guiding vision of Bernard Amadei, the founder of Engineers Without Borders, an active hub of “humanitarian engineering” with 276 chapters in the United States and another 25 or so around the world.

How it started

In 2000, Amadei found himself in San Pablo, Belize, talking with a young girl who had a problem. She could not go to school because she had a job bringing water every day up from the river near the village where she and her family lived.

For Amadei, the girl’s story married a social problem – not getting an education – to an engineering solution. Returning to his University of Colorado teaching job, Amadei set to work on a fix. With eight of his students accompanying him, Amadei returned to San Pablo to build a pumping system powered by a local waterfall to deliver clean water to the girl’s village, freeing her and other children to attend school instead of fetch and bear water.

Engineers Without Borders started in 2000 and has grown to over 300 chapters in the United States and abroad.

Engineers Without Borders started in 2000 and has grown to over 300 chapters in the United States and abroad.

Excited by their success, Amadei and his students returned to Boulder and wondered how to extend the reach of this kind of work. Out of their efforts grew Engineers Without Borders. Now, more than 15 years later, Engineers Without Borders chapters, both on campuses and in the engineering profession at large, have carried out almost 700 projects in 42 countries.

Zeroing in on the basics

Water and sanitation are focal points of humanitarian engineering projects at Engineers Without Borders as well as other organizations active in the field. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has an extensive Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Program, funding projects to develop models of sanitary waste disposal to help the 2.5 billion people around the world lacking access to such facilities.

In 2011, the foundation launched an initiative called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. It is based on a vision of“next-generation” toilets that do not require a sewer or water connection or electricity, cost less than five cents per user per day, and are designed to meet people’s needs.

Flushing the system

Engineers on "A Better Toilet" projects are installing low-cost, energy-saving toilets in places where no plumbing infrastructure exists.

Engineers on "A Better Toilet" projects are installing low-cost, energy-saving toilets in places where no plumbing infrastructure exists.

One of the grantees is a project called, “A Better Toilet,” a collaboration of Duke University, Colorado State University, and RTI International. Led by engineering researcher Brian Stoner, engineers on the project have developed a special stand-alone toilet that does not require piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity. The toilet converts human waste into burnable fuel and water that can be used for hand-washing or agriculture.

Benefits abound

Besides improving levels of sanitation in communities’ lives, a clean, private, accessible toilet can advance other areas of social need. For example, 40 percent of government-run schools in India lack a common functioning toilet, leading to unsanitary conditions, higher-drop-out rates, and degraded educational prospects. The engineers are testing the toilets in both South Asia and Africa and hope to improve not only peoples’ lives and health but also their safety and dignity.

Teaching the field

Humanitarian engineering projects require both ingenious engineering as well as grounding in other, unrelated fields. History, politics and culture, sociology, and economics all help determine the viability and ultimate success of whatever technological solution engineers can develop. Institutions of higher education have addressed this need with a growing number of specially designed cross-disciplinary humanitarian engineering programs.

At Oregon State University, students can study humanitarian engineering from many academic angles as well as participate in projects in the field.

At Oregon State University, students can study humanitarian engineering from many academic angles as well as participate in projects in the field.

All told, about a dozen schools offer fully denominated humanitarian engineering paths of study, and general levels of interest and activity seem to be only rising.

The end results

Humanitarian engineering holds great promise for delivering on one of the basic arguments people make for engineering in general: that it improves people’s lives. Perhaps too often, we think of these improvements in terms of advanced technologies like computers, airplanes, and skyscrapers.

Improvements delivered by humanitarian engineering projects in more basic elements of modern life – like clean water, robust shelter, and accessible power – could well mark more dramatic change to even greater effect.

Do you know of humanitarian engineering projects that have the potential the change people’s lives this way? What kinds of development challenges could humanitarian engineering help with the most?

Leave a comment or contact us directly. And please share this piece with any interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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Photos: Penn State HESE student, courtesy of Penn State University; Engineers Without Borders logo, courtesy of Engineers Without Borders; A Better Toilet sign, courtesy of Brian Stoner; Oregon State student, courtesy of Oregon State University.