Why peace engineering should start in the classroom
This article was written by Hoessein Alkisaei*
It struck me when I found out that just in the 1970s engineers began to acknowledge their commitment to hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public, something I assumed to be trivial for us engineers. However, after giving it some thought, I realised that in my experience contemporary engineers are not educated to function accordingly in countries that may have limited resources. As a consequence, the focus of young engineers from western or developed countries is to pursue careers locally in the developed world. Additionally, most institutions that teach engineering do not mandate students to take courses that develop such skills. Therefore, I believe that change needs to happen within educational curricula in order to provide engineers with the basic motivations to look further than the developed world, and further shift focus to areas that are desperately in need of engineers. Peace engineering is possible, and there are infinite ways to express it.
The intention of peace engineering is to alleviate a pressing issue, such as poverty or hunger. There are several different approaches in order to achieve this:
- Professional engineers should make an effort to transfer existing technology from developed to developing countries. It is essential to determine whether it is possible to translate technology at an appropriate scale, including the necessary modifications, to make smaller scale solutions.
- ‘Appropriate technologies,’ which are specifically designed for impoverished people in developing countries, need to be developed.
- More emphasis must be placed on user participation in technology development.
- There also needs to be increased awareness of an individual society’s people, their situation, and their technological competencies by engineers.
In some countries, engineers are graduating without the necessary skills and experience to be employable. As a result, developing areas severely lack engineers that are capable of designing and constructing.
It is my opinion that engineers need to have respect for life, law and the public good, which requires them to be cognizant of local, societal and cultural priorities. An engineer who has been educated in a developed environment will probably notice that, for example, the legal requirements in their home country are less demanding than those in developing countries. Additionally, these countries have an increased demand for engineers with responsible leadership, listening and informing skills. The gap between the knowledge and skills of professional engineers and those of the general population in developing nations might be significantly larger than in developed countries. Thus, to act responsibly in a way that serves the best interest of their respective community, engineers need to be equipped beforehand with the required tool- and skillset.
It is also noteworthy to mention that an invention is not always used for what it was meant for. In several cases it has been observed that the inventors of a technology are not per se the engineers who determine its purpose as or realistic use. Civil engineering student Carolyn Maphanda, who volunteered on a low-cost housing project in South Africa, expressed the importance of this fact:
“I learned that building is not all about having completed the job, but also thinking about the people who will be using the structure on a daily basis”
Next to Maphanda, an expert on the implementation of water and sanitation programs also shared similar remarks during observation:
“A common problem with rural water projects is that the social infrastructure is not there to maintain them. The engineers who build them try to solve the problem by setting up village water committees, barefoot pump mechanic systems and other such arrangements, often unaware that they are establishing the embryo of local government—something that took 100 years in Europe, and requires anthropological understanding and political skills that do not usually appear on the engineering curriculum” (Cairncross, 2008).
As a result, to build a better world, engineers should with possess specific and well-trained competencies. However, contemporary engineering curricula of different world-renowned universities, like those of TU Delft, MIT, and Stanford, are not offering mandatory courses or trainings to students that develop the required mind- and skillset. This is unfortunate, as both myself and organizations like Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) believe that peace engineering curriculum must be integrated at universities.
Service, teaching, and research are the three pillars of responsibility in academics. Peace engineering can play an important role in all of these if engineering educators not focus solely on making their students ready for the market in developing countries, but instead join the movement in reconsidering their role as faculty. Jens Hansen used to be a civil engineer at the University of Aalborg in Denmark. He argues that research universities are essential in developing valuable knowledge that can have immediate use in developing countries, which in turn results in economic and social success. Hansen’s approach to encouraging developmental research and outreach at universities in many developing societies sounds great; however, my plea, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, is to focus on universities in the developed nations.
- In order to train and equip students with the right tool- and skillset, we do not need a whole university to realise this. Yet, there are some rather simple actions to be taken by faculties, which can be effective and sufficient: Embed mandatory courses about aid or peace engineering in the current engineering curricula. Offering such courses as electives is not effective or constructive. Therefore, one or two mandatory courses a year, with tangible content about the matter at hand, would suffice.
- Educators need to be aware of the clear distinction between theory and practice. Teaching this distinction to students will enable them to develop the skills to translate the knowledge gained in developed societies to the societies of developing nations. Workshops and physical trainings are great ways to facilitate hands-on experience and familiarize students with different circumstances and environments.
- The courses should bring students in contact with real-life examples and experiences. One example of this could be involving the military. A large number of military personnel have been overseas, and visited possible (dangerous) developing areas for a longer period of time. This way, both sides will learn from each other, which will result in a highly unique and valuable interaction: the military personnel will gain more knowledge on how engineers at academia think and approach problems, while the students will receive the required feedback from the personnel about whether the solutions are feasible or not.
- Institutions should further encourage engineering students to think about the kinds of problems they want or don’t want to do on a global scale. Why should an engineer engage with certain societal issues? What are the characteristics of these problems, and why should they be solved? This will make students not only feel responsible for their own environment, but also for the whole planet. To me, this would sound as education at its best.
In conclusion, institutions and engineers still have the opportunity, in a world with pressing issues like poverty, inequality, war, and climate change to make a significant contribution. A move that will not only benefit the planet, but also the engineers themselves by making them more aware, effective, and valuable worldwide. It will equip them with the skills that will ensure that knowledge is transferred from developed to developing societies, which would improve the standards of practice of indigenous populations. In some cases, the gained skills will even prevent fatal outcomes for those who work and live in harsh environments. An aspiration we all should have, which is practical rather than idealistic.
As for now, I will compose and address a letter to my own university and urge them to take my proposal into consideration. In addition, I will try to get in touch with engineers who feel the same so that we can combine our forces to improve conditions for generations to come. As for you, do you want to join me in this mission? Then do the same and find me!
*Hoessein Alkisaei is a structural engineer who has obtained his degree in Civil Engineering at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands and is currently working at the global engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV. He is also part of the Engineers Without Borders team in the Netherlands with projects in Liberia and Togo. His first participation at the One Young World summit was in Bogotá during October 2017. Since then he became an ambassador to OYW The Hague and is helping in preparation to the 2018 OYW summit in The Hague. Hoessein is also passionate about human rights and raising awareness about humanity as the key to creating a unified world. Watch Hoessein’s vlogs as ambassador on different topics that concern humanity and the well being of the world.
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