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Humanitarian engineering students walking through a farm in Samoa
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Students learn to engineer humanitarian solutions

10 August 2017
Students apply their engineering knowledge to real world

Developing community-appropriate designs for water, sanitation, cyclone preparedness, aquaculture and agriculture were some of the outcomes achieved by our engineering students during their recent fieldwork trip to Samoa.

In partnership with Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), 29 University of Sydney students headed to Samoa as a part of the newly-introduced Humanitarian Engineering major.

This global engineering fieldwork is a core component of the major requiring students to undertake work in either a developing country or indigenous community.

The two-week fieldwork provided students with opportunities to interact with a number of organisations including National University of Samoa, Samoa Land Transport Authority, Secretariate of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme, Women in Business and Development Inc. and the Australian High Commission. All of these organisations emphasise the important role played by engineers in both development and climate change adaptation. While in Apia the students also undertook a series of workshops on sustainable engineering design and critical factors for project success and failure.

Students then undertook a five-day homestay in the village of Falease’ela, and in small groups worked on developing eight separate projects for design challenges identified by the community. These projects, for example, required students to determine the best construction methods and materials to affordably cyclone-proof homes; explore alternative decentralised sanitation solutions to overcome current septic tank challenges; and design a new water distribution system to overcome the low pressure experienced by some households in the community.

Students personally presented their findings and solutions to community members and are now in the process of providing a summary report of their engineering ideas. This will allow villagers to action the proposals via community-led projects and apply for additional funding.

“As well as being able apply their engineering knowledge to the real world, students were able to immerse themselves in Samoan culture and language through food, song, dance, religion and exploration of the natural environment,” says Dr Jacqueline Thomas, who oversees the major within the School of Civil Engineering.

“Students were confronted with the challenges and impact of climate change currently facing Samoa and the greater Pacific area, and were tasked with creating and presenting ideas on how to address specific issues impacting the local community.

“The responses from the community during the presentations were very positive and a common reflection from the students was that this had been an exciting opportunity for them to design something that would address a real-world situation.

“Many students started to realise the opportunities for internships and further working opportunities throughout the Pacific.”

Understanding how to better serve disadvantaged communities or groups – something often overlooked by traditional engineering and technology projects – will be at the core of the Humanitarian Engineering major, the first of its kind in Australia.

Humanitarian engineering addresses authentic human problems through applying diverse engineering skills to development, disaster and remote community contexts.

It is about meeting the needs of communities globally, including the application of engineering processes and technology to improve water and sanitation, waste treatment, construction methods or disability access as well as provide affordable housing – all while maintaining a focus on sustainability and appropriateness.

Our major provides students the crucial knowledge and skills required to plan, implement and maintain projects in rural Australian areas and developing countries.

It also enables students to explore international aid and development whilst learning from experienced practitioners and industry partners on how to work in disadvantaged communities, fragile states and communities in disaster recovery.