Penn State Engineering Students Tackle Poverty, Sustainability

The typical student in a school or college of engineering expects to study math, physics, material science and design principles. For students that belong to Penn State's Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), that traditional curriculum is supplemented with business and finance, cultural studies, economics and public policy. For faculty advisor and assistant professor of engineering design Thomas Colledge, such a multidisciplinary approach is necessary to show students that engineers don't just attempt to overcome technical challenges -- they try to make the world a better, more livable place.

"I don't think anything brings home the educational process more than students seeing what they are doing having a positive impact on people's lives," Colledge said....

Students in ESW are able to schedule courses that consist of small, faculty-mentored teams that research and design technologies and entrepreneurial opportunities to address problems in developing communities. Those initiatives have taken place in such far-flung locations ranging from Kenya to Jamaica to the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.

Before any research into solutions can begin, however, ESW first must undertake what Colledge said is a critical component of the efforts -- building relationships in the host communities. Colledge explained that first a long-term relationship is established with educational institutions -- or at times NGOs, churches and foundations -- in the community. That leads to a relationship with the community.

"In order to create the environment for the engineers to do what they need to do, we work with the host university to develop an outreach program in the country, to begin developing relationships with surrounding communities," Colledge said "The entire effort is relationship-driven, not project-driven. The goal has become to create long-term partnerships with an entity on the ground in the host communities so that six months after the project is completed, the villagers have some resource when it breaks, or if something goes wrong."

Additionally, students must create business plans for the solutions they devise in order to show that their ideas create not only environmental and social sustainability in the communities they serve, but also contribute to its economic well-being.

In the five years that the Penn State chapter of the national organization has existed, students have worked with farmers in Jamaica to create sustainable energy systems, villagers in El Salvador to build a prototype water treatment system, and communities in Kenya to devise irrigation plans. Some of these projects have also involved cooperation with other disciplines: communications students joined the effort in El Salvador helping to develop radio-delivered adult education programming, and education students helped local teachers create curricula on hygiene and water quality.

Despite these successes, Colledge stresses the need to continue to reach out to students in the college early in their studies: "I think they come away with an appreciation of what they have and a sense of responsibility of what they should be doing." ::Engineers for a Sustainable World via Penn State Live