‘Glocal’ engineers: Humanitarian engineering as a vehicle for sustainable community development

How is humanitarian engineering developing in Australia and how can engineering knowledge and skills be applied to disaster relief or long-term community development? What are the benefits of a possible collaboration between Australian and European universities?

We caught up with Spyros Schismenos, PhD student at the University of Western Sydney and tutor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Eva Cheng, Director of Transnational Education (UTS) and Scott Daniel, Senior Lecturer in Humanitarian Engineering ( UTS), who answered all our questions.

TGH: Spyros, your research on humanitarian engineering was recently selected as one of the references case studies for science and practice at the grassroots level to accelerate disaster risk reduction. How are you feeling and are there any updates on your work since our last conversation?

I am delighted to see our work and efforts gaining the international recognition they deserve. Just to remind our readers, my research focuses on the development of a hybrid unit that combines hydropower generation and flood warning services. I developed this prototype with local actors from Aggitis (Drama) in Greece and Dhuskun in Nepal. We will soon finalize the prototype and start testing it in Aggitis.

TGH: Eva, humanitarian engineering is not limited to disaster management. What else is important to know?

Humanitarian engineering is human and community centered. Engineering knowledge and skills are applied to disaster relief or long-term community development, which may be local or overseas.

Community development builds the engineering knowledge and capacity of local communities so that they are fully involved and contribute their capabilities in any infrastructure or technology development. Humanitarian engineering requires diverse ways of thinking and doing, so bringing something different to the table is much appreciated.

Left to right: Eva, Spyros and Scott prepare to teach as a team at the University of Technology Sydney

TGH: Scott, how can Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal culture in Australia benefit from humanitarian engineering?

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are the original peoples of Australia. They are also the first scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, and the first practitioners of environmental sustainability and respectful community engagement.

Humanitarian engineering is centered on taking a strengths-based approach, drawing on the many strengths of Indigenous communities and cultures, combined with engineering principles, to provide impactful solutions to address the inequalities and contribute to sustainable community development.

For example, some ongoing UTS projects with the Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation are exploring how culturally significant mangrove ecosystems can be restored and also used for carbon credits in “blue carbon” programs.

TGH: Eva, you are also involved in the UTS Women in Engineering and Information Technology programme, what are the biggest challenges for gender equity in the engineering sector in Australia, especially in rural areas?

The need for a shift in perception and a shift in culture are long-standing gender equity challenges that we all need to participate in. It starts with changing perceptions of what engineering is, what engineers do, and who should/shouldn’t be an engineer.

Engineering is a socio-technical, people-oriented profession in which anyone can get involved if they wish! However, this is not the general perception, and this must change from the first years of school.

There are challenges specific to regional and rural areas. STEM programs in schools – whether integrated or extracurricular – are less available than in metropolitan areas. Fewer role models are accessible to young people, plus the added barriers for students and working professionals in accessing metro-focused opportunities.

(left to right) Scott, Eva and Spyros commenting on the students’ humanitarian engineering project ‘Compost Bin’

TGH: Scott, can you briefly introduce the ISF Challenge and tell us why this initiative is important?

The Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Challenge is a remarkable educational program in which more than 10,000 engineering students across Australia and the world each year discover the power of engineering to affect positive social change by working on actual design projects with EWB community partners. .

The program not only provides first-year students with valuable experience of the social and human dimensions of engineering, but also innovative design ideas for the community partner through the combined creativity and insight of thousands of students. Our students come from many different backgrounds (including many from Greece!) and the different perspectives they bring to their design processes is where the magic happens.

The ISF Challenge is just the first step in the student humanitarian engineering journey at UTS. Students can participate in immersive study tours to developing countries to learn about humanitarian engineering in practice, work in design teams to develop solutions to humanitarian engineering challenges, or conduct research on projects identified by community partners. This approach is part of UTS’ strategy to address social justice and have global impact.

TGH: Spyros, you have prepared students for the ISF Challenge. What can you tell us about future Australian humanitarian engineers?

They are fantastic and very endearing! This semester, my students developed unique project ideas for the ISF Challenge, including a portable hydrogen generator, foldable solar panels, shelters, and mobile apps for rangers and tourists.

Students visiting United Nations World Food Program facilities during the ISF Design Summit study tour in Timor-Leste

TGH: Eva, you are part of a team that recently received the Team Teaching Award at UTS. What tips can you share about innovative team teaching and why is it important for students and educators?

Team teaching is a key approach for us as it integrates diversity and inclusion into our teaching practices to enable better learning outcomes for students and a more inclusive teaching environment for tutors. Tutors collaborate with each other to bring their range of different skills and strengths (we deliberately mix the backgrounds of our tutors), and students benefit from the depth and breadth of having 2-4 tutors in the class at a time.

Our team of teachers spans multiple subjects at different year levels, so that students have a continuous and consistent learning experience, and tutors have more opportunities for professional development in their practice of education.

TGH: And you, Spyros, what is your vision of team teaching from a tutor’s point of view?

It is a great experience for both students and tutors. Having 2 or more educators in class allows students to capitalize on different expertise, knowledge and approaches. For tutors, the main benefit is that it encourages them to link ideas together – this leads to very creative lessons and teaching approaches. Students seem to prefer team teaching to “traditional” teaching.

Scott discussing a prototype with Joy Morgan of Katima Mulilo in northeastern Namibia

TGH: Scott, how many humanitarian engineers are there in Australia? What are their plans and next steps?

Humanitarian engineering has matured rapidly in recent years. In 2019, a formal Humanitarian Engineering Group was formed under the auspices of Engineers Australia, which has grown rapidly to now have over 700 members.

In addition to continuing to contribute to sustainable development and humanitarian aid through engineering, the community also works to professionalize humanitarian engineering by establishing a body of knowledge and qualifying educational and professional pathways.

TGH: Spyros, do the Greek and Cypriot universities have the resources and the capacity to teach humanitarian engineering?

Humanitarian engineering is not a well-known discipline in Europe. Greece and Cyprus could lead the way with socio-technical interventions for sustainable development and disaster risk reduction at the local level.

I am convinced that Greek students have the knowledge and skills to support vulnerable communities in the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan region, so humanitarian engineering should be further promoted.

One of my goals in the coming years is to increase collaborative initiatives between Greek and Australian students through programs like the ISF challenge.

Norma P. Rex