Sunday, August 28, 2011

Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 2

Following from the previous post, Transforming the Image of Engineering: Part 1, this post is about showing an existing side of engineering that is far more interesting and attractive to women.

My dad is a doctor and I grew up in a rural Kwa-Zulu Natal town in South Africa. It was my dream to be a doctor and work for Doctors Without Borders. When my dad asked me why I wanted to follow that path, I said simply, "Because I want to help people, Daddy."

Back then I had no idea about what an Engineer was. Buildings, roads and machines just appeared. You picked up a sewing machine, or a washing machine from a shop and sent it in when it broke. My medically-orientated family were not much help in this respect. I used to get into a world of trouble for taking apart the vacuum cleaner and sewing machine. When I figured out how the damn thing worked and started making my own clothes at 12, my parents were not impressed. They wanted me to become a doctor, not a dress maker!

They looked a little like this:

Okay, my parents look nothing like that. But they were strict Indian parents nonetheless so you get the picture!

Looking back now, I laugh at how much engineering actually goes into making clothes. You have to design for manufacture and assembly, considering the fabric properties: texture, flow, pattern. Then you need to cut the shapes leaving enough space for machining (sewing seams). Finally, you have to use logic to determine what order to assemble the pieces together to create a seamless and neat finish. Sound familiar? 

I was an engineer, it was clear as day. But my parents just didn't know enough about engineering to recognise this. And my father wondered how I was going to match my philanthropic dream up with a technical career. I wondered too. But I stuck to my guns and it wasn't until my final year of engineering that I figured out how I could help others and be and engineer! An opportunity to lead an Engineers Without Borders project landed on my lap (by some miracle and thanks to the wonderful ex-chair of EWB-UCT Brennan Hodkinson) and everything started to align. The project involved finding cooking alternatives for people trading in Nyanga Informal Settlement in Cape Town. (Their methods were harmful to their health). After countless site-visits where we sought to understand people's needs, we came up with high-efficiency stoves. (These were developed by our Technical Head MD together with Honeycomb Homes in Durban who develop green technologies!)

From there, I discovered that instead of a purely technical thesis, I could propose my own thesis project that sought to improve process-flows within a public hospital on the notorious Cape Flats. I used techniques developed in car manufacturing to ensure critical medical equipment was available to patients when they needed it.
(My dad was very proud and started telling everyone he could that his daughter was an engineer!)

I was incredibly lucky to have an awesome supervisor who understood what I wanted to do and helped me realise it. Not all universities allow this, but that too is changing. EWB-UK operates a program for undergraduate engineering students where external community development organizations and NGO’s submit research projects to universities. Those projects that pass the bar are made available to final-year students who work directly with these agencies – benefiting from the real-world experience this offers.

EWB-Australia has implemented a similar program, introducing all first year students to development through their “EWB Challenge”, and to a full research project based on community involvement in their final year. Each year, more female students than males take on these final-year projects. This amazing initiative was itself implemented by a woman - EWB-Australia’s CEO Elizabeth Webb Brown, who was then Director of Education, Research and Training.

 So I say, why not?  Why not make this unconventional but increasingly important side of engineering visible to students? Why not teach them that design isn’t confined to the little book of Shigley’s Machine Component Design? Why not give mechanical engineering students the opportunity to design a solar-powered, Ghandian-Engineering torch rather than another battery-operated one, for a fraction of the price. Why not highlight in our university brochures the fact that civil engineering students are busy designing storm-water drainage systems for informal settlements?

Why not make developmental projects and opportunities available to our students, teaching them early on that engineering isn’t only about space ships and fast cars? (which, let’s face it, are traditionally masculine). Why not show that engineering is as much about designing high-efficiency wood stoves by understanding community needs, and still involves thermo-dynamic design for the heat transfer, fluid mechanics optimization to channel air to the combustion chamber and smoke away from the user and a good dose of materials science for insulating the combustion chamber against the elements during cold, rainy Cape winters. If we showed this picture of engineering, how many more females would want to choose engineering then?

A transformation is happening in engineering: a transformation towards sustainability and an increased emphasis on the role of the engineer in alleviating poverty.  This picture of what a engineering is, is not only far more appealing to women, but when introduced to engineering students has the potential to improve their communication and leadership skills whilst developing them into socially-conscious, change-agents - something my country can use a lot more of.

So remember when I told my dad that I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people? Wouldn’t it be great if little girls replied to this question with, “I want to be an engineer because I want to help make the world a better place?”


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Leave a comment and let me know what you think of this post. I love getting feedback from readers!