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Dr Jonathan Truslove, Education Lead, Engineers Without Borders UK

At Engineers Without Borders UK, we believe that with a different approach, the engineering community has the power to rapidly transform our world for the better. By bringing together thousands of people and organisations, we will reach a tipping point where global responsibility becomes integral to the way engineering is taught and practised. We are doing this by inspiring a lifelong, meaningful commitment to globally responsible engineering; upskilling the engineering community with the skills and expertise to be globally responsible; and driving change through collaboration with companies, universities and organisations to accelerate globally responsible engineering becoming mainstream.

It is widely accepted that the way we currently live on the planet is not sustainable nor equitable. ​​While the engineering profession has resulted in incredible advances to our quality of life, it has also played a fundamental role in contributing to the unjust and unsustainable practices that dominate the world today. Our profession’s strength as ‘practical problem solvers’, can also be a weakness as we spend limited time critically reflecting on our role in the world. This must change. Critical analysis and critique must be a fundamental cornerstone of engineering competence, to critically analyse and critique the role of engineering, its relationship with humanity, and its impact on our past and potential futures. Creating equitable and sustainable outcomes requires shaping the process of addressing problems to be truly collaborative, and recognising our role in facilitating more than just the development of a hard technological output.

The World Economic Forum has also outlined the top 10 skills needed for 2025, where five involve skill sets around problem solving. In particular creativity, critical thinking and navigating complexity. Further, the UNESCO Engineering for Sustainable Development report in 2021 emphasised that “Addressing the Sustainable Development Goals and the sustainability challenges will require more ‘complexity’ in the curriculum”. These are being reflected and emphasised through higher education accreditation in the UK and internationally, such as where coverage of sustainability and ethics and how it relates to engineering is being strengthened. 

Sustainability is more than a word or concept, it is actually a culture, and if we aim to see it mirrored in the near future, what better way exists than that of planting it in the young hearts of today knowing they are the leaders of the tomorrow we are not guaranteed of? It is possible.” – Participating Student of the Engineering for People Design Challenge

In 2011, after learning from our cousins in Australia, we launched the Engineering for People Design Challenge. This in-curricular programme seeks to inspire multi-disciplinary groups of university students to broaden their awareness of the social, environmental, economic, and ethical implications of engineering alongside technical skills of engineering solutions. In 2020/21 we worked in partnership with Engineers Without Borders South Africa to deliver the Design Challenge in 38 universities across South Africa, UK, Ireland and the USA, to embed the Design Challenge into first and second year undergraduate curriculum. Since its launch, the Design Challenge has been delivered in universities to over 52,500 students. The challenge is taught through a project-based learning pedagogy, and mapped against competency frameworks like the UK’s Accreditation for Higher Education Programmes.

To achieve a deep understanding of the context during the Design Challenge, we work with an NGO community partner to produce a real-world design brief that is shaped by insights and reflections from the local community. In 2021, we partnered with the Centre for Appropriate Technology and worked with Engineers Without Borders Australia, to consider the engineering challenges and opportunities found in Cape York, Australia, which centres around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Traditional Owners of Australia. Students have the opportunity to learn about these communities and their relationship to their land, while investigating the link between engineering design and the ability to survive, thrive and flourish.

Over the years, participating students have been asked to reflect on the skills they have developed before and after the design challenge, rating them on a scale of one to five, from very poor to excellent. Taking an average of all students who completed both surveys, the result was a 9-23% increase in skills including: Developing creative solutions, working in uncertain environments, working through the engineering design cycle, project management, communication, teamworking, decision making and understanding the context. Overall, this initiative embeds a globally responsible awareness during a pivotal moment in the student’s career and challenges traditionally theory based learning.

[The Design Challenge] has helped the team see the real world challenges and not only focus on theory as we mostly do in our lectures but linking this to the context we are working on at the moment as engineers. It clearly gave us a big picture to think of not only a solution focused on the physical aspect, but also the environmental and social aspects… It gave me a good understanding of what goes in an engineer’s mind prior to making decisions in real world.” – Past Participating Student and Engineering Graduate, The Engineering for People Design Challenge

For more information about Engineers Without Borders UK and global responsibility.

For more information about volunteer professionals involved in the Engineering for People Design Challenge, see our conference article “Volunteer Professionals in an Undergraduate Design Challenge: Contributing to and Practicing Globally Responsible Engineering”

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