Humanitarian Engineering Program Aims to Solve Challenges with Innovation

Students at the University of Texas gain on-the-ground expertise to help work towards solving humanitarian challenges through engineering.

(Image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.)

(Image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.)

The future needs engineers who are willing to tackle the big problems the world faces. This is the mission of the humanitarian engineering program at the University of Texas. “When you look at the big problems the planet faces, things like climate change mitigation and response, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” explains William Carter, an alumnus of the Texas Engineering program who now works for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “We are going to need more engineers who are able to bring their skillsets to solve these problems.”

In 2010, UT began working to tackle societal problems by launching Projects with Underserved Communities. This is a year-long course that allows Engineering Students to collaborate with local partners to design and implement an engineering project that could help the community in some way. For example, a group of students designed and built a Polyhouse Solar Dryer for a community in Mexico in 2019.

Janet Ellzey, one of the professors who started Projects with Underserved Communities, grew on the momentum and created Cockrell School’s Certificate in Humanitarian Engineering. This is a multidisciplinary program open to undergraduates who want to enhance their learning by developing innovative solutions for communities in need.

The success of these initiatives encouraged Ellzey to think bigger. She envisioned sending students abroad to work with communities and organizations, such as the Red Cross. The students could learn from those with on-the-ground experience, and contribute their technical expertise. “In this area of working with marginalized communities, one of the most common criticisms is that the people doing the design work lack awareness of the situation on the ground,” says Ellzey.

She was encouraged to pursue a partnership with IFRC once students started to request a project-based course specifically for humanitarian engineering. Ellzey and Carter created the Humanitarian Product Design course in 2018, which is a project-based course where students work with a senior officer at the IFRC to create a product to help a community in need.

(Image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.)

(Image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin.)

In just two years, students created numerous products that will help underserviced communities. Notable student projects include a small-scale wind power unit. The students created a community-level wind turbine that could power LED lights, or charge cell phones. Another team of students created a pad press machine for Syrian refugees. The machine would allow women to assemble and produce their menstrual products, which is an oft-overlooked hygienic need.

The solutions the students created in such a short time were so impressive that the IFRC has formalized a partnership with UT. “We’ve shown this is not all theoretical,” Carter said. “We have demonstrated the ability to work together at field level.”

Although the partnership is in the early stages, they are aiming big. The goal is to tackle big problems faced by the global south and possibly collaborating with the Kenyan Red Cross Society. There is even potential to create a field lab where students can get more real-world in-situ experience.

“Not every student who goes through this program will make a career in humanitarian engineering,” Ellzey said. “This practical experience will benefit them wherever they go. And they will come out of it with a larger view of the world and its needs.”