Low-Tech Engineering

I’ve encountered a common sentiment about EWB among Engineering students, especially at the U of O. It goes something like this:

EWB is not involved with technical skills. Engineering is a technical profession. Therefore, as an Engineering student, I shouldn’t care about EWB. 

A range of attitudes is encompassed within this thought process, from casual apathy to directed hate (yes, actually). I’ve never understood this viewpoint for many reasons, the majority of which include the development of the non-technical skills that differentiate Engineers from technicians. I can honestly say that I’ll be able to contribute to a future engineering team in a productive way mainly because of what I’ve learned through EWB. Facilitation, mediation, management, entrepreneurship, and-most importantly-innovation are all things that I’ve picked up through EWB without even having to go on a work term.

Besides soft skills, though, I’m realizing more and more each day just how much what I’m doing in Ghana is Engineering.

After all, what is Engineering? Well, according to Professional Engineers Ontario, Engineering is concerned with three things:

  1. any act of planning, designing, composing, evaluating, advising, reporting, directing or supervising (or the managing of any such act);
  2. that requires the application of engineering principles; and
  3. concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment

The first third of this definition just outlines the scope of acts that fall under the definition. Note that management of any of these acts is specified. Cool.

The next third is a little bit vague; what are these so-called “Engineering principles”?

Basically, they are a set of concepts which are applied to solve problems. They differ based on what discipline of Engineering you’re in, but I would argue that the core set includes innovation, design, heuristics, resource management, and user input. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it abstractly covers most of the principles I’ve encountered so far in my Chemical Engineering education and probably includes most of the principles used in other disciplines as well.

The last third of the above definition is, for me, the most interesting because it’s about people. I’ve found that it’s also the one that is most often forgotten by Engineering students. It’s so easy to lock ourselves up in the ivory towers of university and forget that we’re not just PDE-solving machines, but members of a profession geared towards helping people with technology. Engineering is a noble profession that should be people-centered, according to this definition.

Okay, so let me bring this back to my work in Ghana. So far I’ve designed a database and collection tool using guidelines and input specified by my teammates. Together, we piloted the collection tool in a focus group of end users and collected feedback from them on factors like ease of use  and design. Based on the feedback that we received, we updated the collection tool format to meet their needs while maintaining a streamlined platform for collection and storage. We plan on rolling out training on the features and use of this tool within the next month.

While we’re updating the tool and creating the training, my counterpart and I are also collecting data from the past 5 years from some local, low-performing schools so that we can see if enrolment and performance are correlated in the Northern Region. With this information, we’ll decide which analyses are most worthwhile to automate within the database we’ve built. We’ve started on the the analysis of this data now, but we’re still working on capturing all of it.

So right now, my work looks a little something like this:

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Seems a lot like work an Engineer might do, right? That’s because it is.

Of course there’s one difference between the work I’m doing here and similar work which would be done in Canada: the environment. And I’m not talking about all this red dust in my keyboard. No, I mean the sum of the available resources, skills, knowledge, and attitudes of stakeholders in my project. Ghana is (among a gazillion other things) low tech. Like a good Engineer*, I’ve got to recognize this and respond two ways: 1. I’ve got to create an equally low tech solution and 2. I must help to sustainably fill the capacity gap of my users.

The first part is easy enough, but the second half requires a lot more research, planning, and strategy. In a more high-tech environment, this is not usually so. End users of a database would likely have access to a computer (because who doesn’t in the West?) and would likely know how to use it. The Engineer who is designing the product can take these things for granted and won’t have to think twice about his/her users.

So the next time you’re sitting in class learning about cross-flow heat exchangers (or laughing at the poor sucker who is stuck in that lecture while you do something Artsy), keep in mind that you’re preparing to enter a career whose very definition is people-centric. Thus, the complete needs of your users–be they computer-addicted Canadians, or rural Ghanaian farmers–ought to be at the forefront of your work.


*-I understand that as a student of Engineering, I cannot officially use the term “Engineer” to describe myself. I’ve used it here for simplicity’s sake only.


8 responses to “Low-Tech Engineering

  1. Swiftest, least-useful reply ever, but here it is–thanks for saying this, too.
    As an Artsy, the anti-EWB sentiment among some engineering students always puzzled me–so thanks for calling that out from the inside.
    Keep singin it.

  2. Excellent post! Also, in the paragraph under the slideshow you forgot a word (“I’ve got TO create” – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, this is why I have no friends.)

    The 3rd point is very interesting as well, and as someone from outside of the engineering profession it always seemed like a gimme to me, but I think that if certain aspects of engineering and the human impact and social responsibility aren’t taught and engrained and an intrinsic part of someone’s engineering education, that might make people more quick to assume that EWB ≠ “engineering,” since their exposure to what engineering means has been all the technical things they’re learning about cross-flow heat exchangers.

    I read this neat piece on ‘a list of completely wrong assumptions about technology use in emerging economies’ that really opened my eyes to a lot of the so-called “user-friendliness” of technologies we take for granted in cell phones, images, etc. and it was neat to think of all the design – and engineering – questions you have to take into account that we might not normally think about. (Or yesterday, when I made a tumblr layout that wasn’t intuitive to people who weren’t familiar with tumblr and I was like “oh right, not everyone spends ALL THEIR TIME here, must make accessible!”). Super interesting!

  3. As a non-engineer as well (Biology), this explanation feels almost like a vindication of all of the things that I’ve poorly articulated or failed to express in the past three years, as I urge my engineer friends to consider and support EWB. For me, it just *feels* right as well, so I think that is another reason why my friends tend to view my arguments with scepticism, no matter how well-laid out and logical they actually are.
    Thanks, and if I can get permission to use your ideas here that would be amazing.

  4. Great post Chris! I nominate this and a corresponding lecture to be fit into the Professional Practice course. Happy Canada Day, eh? 😉

  5. Wow, this is a fantastic post, Chris! I’ve faced this question oh so many times and this articulates my frustration very well.
    Its great to keep up on your placement. Keep up the amazing work and writing. 🙂

  6. Hey Chris,
    Absolutely great post! You’ve articulated your thoughts well. I think Clare has a good point, in that often the reason why engineering students do not engage with EWB is not because they think EWB is not engineering but more so because of the background of their training at University. Unfortunately, many Canadian engineering programs are archaic when it comes to innovating in curriculum, and as a result a focus on social problem solving is negated for more of the same – useless theory that isn’t applicable in the real world.

    I see EWB’s work on Global Engineering and curriculum enhancement as really important if Canadian engineers want to be successful in a globalized economy. I really believe that engineering is going to become less about the technology and more about the people in the future!

    Great post brotha!

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