Global Engineering – A Tale

Michael Winer - 3B Nanotechnology
Posted on: November 17, 2010

When I was asked what Global Engineering meant to me by a fellow member of Engineers Without Borders, my first reaction in my mind’s eye was a picture of the globe with a bunch of people standing on it holding hands, kind of like those cheesy WordArt caricatures we all grew up using profusely in shotty attempts at our first presentations. Maybe with a few hardhats added in for that authentic Eng feel. But what does it really mean? I’ve been searching into the topic recently, and I think I’ve broken it down into three separate ideas. Here are the parts (the sum comes later):

Part 1: The ‘Spiderman Complex’

Global Engineering tries to recognize the concept that we all, as prospective or active engineers, have some type of responsibility for our actions. In a greater sense, I liken to term this the ‘Spiderman complex’, from which I proudly take the movie quote, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Just like Peter Parker’s trusty Uncle Ben, the idea behind global engineering is for all of us to understand our part in the greater fabric of society. Even though most engineers are consistently faced with and focused on specific goals in their field; crunching numbers, measuring chemicals, drawing CAD and testing circuits is the norm, our work, we should always be aware of how we fit into the context of the ‘greater good’. We, as engineers, have the power to create extraordinary change in our world, and with that we need to make sure we understand the consequences of our work not just to ourselves, but to society as a whole.

Part 2: Education and Activation

Ok great, so we all know that we should be more socially responsible people, thinking of the greater good, acting in gratitude to others, basically Ghandi-fying our lives. How is that even possible though, especially when being an engineering student at UW already sucks the life out of us (some would say literally)? The key is in two parts: education and activation. To start, the education – we can make it easier on ourselves by choosing some classes that offer a holistic approach on the ideas behind engineering (focus on those dreaded Impact Courses for this. As a note, EWB runs presentations in courses such as STV101 to discuss the ideas behind global engineering including design approaches used to connect with the needs of different communities). Once education takes place, or perhaps simultaneously, we can start with activation of these ideas. Essentially, whenever we have the time, we should take a moment to think about the possibilities to make small changes around us. Say your friend says he has a great idea for a new battery for the Fuel Car Team he joined last month. Maybe just shoot it by them that they should consider renewable fuels – some biofuel, perhaps from a company that supports green tech. Remember, simple is best. In a short while, practically without even realizing it, you could see your thoughts on the topic making a real difference in the engineering that you do.

Part 3: Privilege and Principle

We as engineers in a professional program garner a certain level of respect. But there’s a reason behind that – we are built upon a pretty old and deeply vital set of principles which, in my opinion, makes our profession one of the best in the world. We each have an innate responsibility to this code of conduct, so we might as well use it for the greater good. Global Engineering is all about understanding how we fit in, and understanding our own profession is a great place to start. Next time you’re in a class where your prof is a P.Eng., just ask them about how their research reflects a global ideal. They might not be able to answer you directly, but hopefully it gets a bit of conversation stirring in the class – activation at its best.

A Few Examples and Tips:

Here are some examples of Global Engineering ideals put into practice in UW’s engineering programs (I thought of these myself, I’m sure you can do better yourself):

CHEM: process design for a new drug manufacturing system where cellulose from grain farmers is used in the capsule design. Normally such ‘trash grains’ would be burned or composted away – why not use it in your product while avoiding carbon emissions?

NANO: nanotubes made of cheaper, lower-grade carbon by-products such as graphite instead of higher-grade graphenes. Sure the properties might be reduced, but for general purpose you could be saving a lot of processing, therefore reducing energy costs

CIVIL/MECH: pumping stations for water or wastewater where each level has a recycling retrofit in order to optimize filtration design and reuse water closer to its source rather than sending it to a central location farther away

ELEC: recyclable batteries and electrical components. This field is already quite profitable, and there’s a very lucrative market for companies that can produce a 100% recyclable battery system

SYSTEMS: STEP, renewable designs for ‘replenishable’ housing. Many resources in houses are brought in from afar (electricity via power lines, water via pipelines). Finding a way to recycle and reuse these utilities at the home rather than shipping them in and out is much more efficient both in energy and convenience

SOFTWARE: AI. Building software that could help people with all sorts of problems without requiring external operators could lead to a level of sophistication and ease in society that could be revolutionary to the way we live and help others.

ENVIRO: rainforests as a model for compost and nutrient harvesting. Rainforests are an ideal environment for compost at the forest floor. Urban rainforests could help to encourage simple and effective means of producing compost without need for expensive and inefficient transportation methods

MANAGEMENT: promotion and direction of companies towards global engineering ideals. This could include setting up an infrastructure within a company where employees are rewarded for creating novel ways to integrate more efficient means of process design, or product development.

Just a few short tips to get yourself on the global track (the sum of the parts):

-          Recognize what you love the most about your field, and think of ways that it fits into the ‘bigger picture’ of society

-          Think of Charles Darwin: we’re in a ‘survival of the fittest’ society these days. Think of ways that could even the field of play for those less fortunate than yourself

-          Your degree is a very powerful vessel for change, even if it’s not complete. Try to consider the ideal of Engineers Serve The World (ESTW) along with ERTW when you act in an engineering capacity

-          Come to Engineers Without Borders events to find out more (look for Olivia or Mike for Global Engineering specifics)