HE Lecture Series: Pathways for Humanitarian Engineers

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10 percent of the world’s consumers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90 percent,” summarized Dr. Paul Polak of International Development Enterprises. This concept is used by the humanitarian engineering community to explain why there is need for the profession. Engineers without Borders (EWB), Bridges to Prosperity, and other humanitarian engineering programs and organizations are striving to create this revolution.

Kaitlin Litchfield, a Ph.D candidate at CU-Boulder presented a lecture on pathways for humanitarian engineers as a part of the ongoing lecture series sponsored by the humanitarian engineering department and EWB. Through her research, Litchfield has investigated the differences between engineers involved in EWB and professionals who have never been involved in the humanitarian organization. Her research focuses on the idea that there must be specific reasons for an individual to choose humanitarian engineering as a supplement or replacement to corporate engineering. While studying at the Mortensen Center for Engineering in Developing Communities in Boulder, Litchfield has used interviews and surveys to gather qualitative data in the first nationwide study of its kind.

While there is little quantitative data on her study yet, she did portray striking differences in the motivations for becoming an engineer between the two study groups. Interviews with female professional engineers have shown that while many non-EWB members chose engineering because of their interest in math and science, their love for problem solving, and other inherent qualities, the EWB members had a much lower response rate as to their reasons for becoming an engineer. This data leads to the conclusion that many humanitarian engineers chose engineering because of the applications in worldwide relief and aid– an aspect not seen by the public.

Many philanthropically inclined engineers face a struggle to find where they belong in the workforce after graduation. While most graduates with a degree in engineering go on to work in a corporate environment for a large company doing what they love, for some graduates, that type of work place is not enough to feel fulfilled. A career paired with EWB can help those who want to help the previously mentioned 90% of humanity. Working to help people outside the normal structure of engineering can give an individual confidence that engineering was the right choice; it can help one feel creative again by working on projects that are ever-changing with unconventional challenges. It can also give an engineer a larger motivation for their work– a reason to be the best engineer he can possibly be. All of these benefits are weighed against the job security, high paying salaries, and good benefits of a corporate job. As the engineering industry grows more accepting of humanitarian engineering and the redesign Dr. Polak calls for, more options become available for those stuck at a crossroads. The decision could become easier if large companies adapt to the growing field.

Litchfield concluded by asking the audience, “What is most important to you in a future engineering job?”. While humanitarian engineering is not for everyone, certainly an individual’s answer to that question can help to direct his career path. She suggests researching the many options the engineering profession has to offer and reevaluating individual motivations to help make the right decision, whether that be humanitarian or corporate for a fulfilling career.

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