Engineers in Action: Eswatini Suspended Footbridge; Beyond Merely Checking Boxes: Can Humanitarian Engineering Projects Take on Greater Meaning than Just ABET Fulfillment?

Smith T, Jack, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Gomez, Jose, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Ferguson, Sean, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Millions of people around the world lack adequate infrastructure to access essential goods and services. Despite rapid global growth, communities in nations all over the globe often live under governments that lack the funds, ethical conviction, or expertise to provide them this infrastructure. As a result, these people endure frequent hardships often unthought of in the modern world. In recent years, humanitarian efforts from engineers around the world to help people in such situations have risen dramatically. The technical and social theses presented address this interaction between engineering and humanitarian aid and how this interaction affects engineering education programs in the United States.
The technical thesis describes the endeavors of our capstone team to design a pedestrian footbridge for a community in Eswatini, Africa. The bridge spans the Mtilane river in the Manzini region of the country which floods its banks every year for several weeks at during the rainy season. Residents there currently use a timber bridge to cross the river which is impassible during these high-water events. Working with Engineers in Action, our goal was to provide a year-round way to cross the river for the community to access markets, jobs, healthcare, schools, and churches on either side of the river. Our team all found great meaning in our project, as we were able to provide real-world solutions to a sliver of the humanitarian needs in the world. While copious work remains to be done to help people, the work that we embarked upon was obviously meaningful and has the potential to bring life-changing benefits to the community in Eswatini.
The sociotechnical thesis examines the integration of humanitarian engineering projects, such as the one I was a part of this year, into engineering curricula in the United States. It describes how humanitarian engineering projects have gained a place in engineering curricula as a result of changing ABET accreditation requirements, as these projects are a potentially phenomenal way to give students hands-on experience as well as learn valuable skills gained in interacting with other cultures and nations. However, there are concerns that have been raised over the use of these projects to satisfy curriculum requirements. How can we ensure the communities being targeted with assistance are not reduced to being pawns for helping students graduate? Should projects that could potentially result in failures that produce physical or emotional harm to the people in these communities be conducted by inexperienced students? The thesis concludes by analyzing examples of success and failure in humanitarian engineering in college programs and applying a sociotechnical framework of co-design theory to do so. By engaging in practices anchored in this theory, these projects can be conducted in a way which not only is more edifying of those being assisted, but also is more beneficial to the students involved in terms of skills gleaned from their experiences.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
co-design, codesign, Engineers in Action, humanitarian engineering, ABET accreditation, engineering education

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Technical Advisor: Jose Gomez
STS Advisor: Sean Ferguson
Technical Team Members: Yamal Andonie, Mackenzie Beavers, Jose Castro, Haley Dues, Gabrielle Jennings, Bryson Thomas, Kathryn Wagner

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