Engineering a Better Future

Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the WEEF-GEDC Peace Engineering Conference, where STEM professionals from 44 different countries gathered to discuss “Peace Engineering.” During the conference, we focused on how engineers play a vital role in delivering creative solutions that can radically transform and improve human and natural well-being. Peace Engineering can be a framework in which STEM professionals can solve complex problems like access to clean water, gender equality and climate change.

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are examples of challenges facing our planet, and can be used as a way to focus our attention and energy on specific problems. Addressing the SDGs is critical to maintaining peace and prosperity, and it is something we, as technical professionals, can help achieve. We are in a unique position to design the world how we would like to see it — more purposeful, sustainable, and accessible to all.

Engineers and villagers pull together to add protective fencing around their new rainwater drinking system in Nuevo Loreto, Peru. Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders.

A critical aspect of today’s educational experience is integrating ethics and social impact into technical education; because, with the ethical practice of engineering, we can all build a better future. For example, engineers can design electric cars to cut down carbon emissions and help protect the environment. But in the process of building ever more efficient batteries, are we mining rare minerals and exploiting ecosystems that communities depend on? Or forcing illegal labor to obtain these materials? As engineers and scientists, we must consider the holistic impact of our designs and work in coordination with governments, industry and education.

This fall, Drexel University became the first engineering school in the U.S. to offer a graduate degree in the emerging field of Peace Engineering. The master’s program was created in collaboration with PeaceTech Lab, an NGO headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Lab is dedicated to preventing and reducing violent conflict through education and research that integrates innovative technologies, approaches, and policies with the studies and practices of peace-builders.

But Drexel certainly isn’t the only institution with peace engineering on its radar. University of St. Thomas pioneered its undergraduate peace engineering program in 2003. Their program allows engineering students to pair their B.S. degree with a minor in justice and peace studies. And many other engineering programs around the world are integrating the concepts of peace engineering into their curricula. With the many challenges facing the planet and its population, it is our responsibility to teach our students how to apply science and engineering principles to support and promote peace.

Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders.

In today’s classrooms, communities and boardrooms, technology touches every aspect of our daily lives, and connects us to every corner of the world. There’s great power and responsibility in that, especially for those STEM professionals who must possess a robust understanding of complex challenges — not just an ability to create technically-sound solutions. That is exactly what peace engineering demands us to consider.

Jenny Amos, Ph.D., (kneeling, center) at Njala University in Sierra Leone.

In our latest issue brief, we highlighted ABET-accredited programs that are infusing humanities into their curricula, resulting in graduates who are better equipped to understand the global impact of their work. One of the examples we included is an online course at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign that enables engineering students to understand problems holistically, and see them first-hand. Professor Jenny Amos takes her students on a walking tour of a state-of-the-art hospital in the United States, a walking tour of a free clinic in Champaign, Illinois, and then a virtual tour of a health clinic in Sierra Leone. Throughout the semester-long course, students think about the context of the health clinic and its environment. By the end of the semester, they no longer design to solve problems based on their own experiences but with specific communities in mind, enhancing their ability to create more equitable solutions for everyone.

This is peace engineering in action. And it’s at the heart of what we mean when we talk about “building a better world.”

At ABET, and among our member societies, we strive to strengthen post-secondary STEM programs in ways that teach students to not just care about technical solutions, but also social impact. There’s great power and the potential for great peace in that commitment.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.