Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Engineers Without Borders Changing Paradigm?

I received a note today from a colleague at a NSF conference in Hawii (must be nice). She wrote the following:

The man who founded EWB "spoke here yesterday & today, and his views sound a lot like yours - empowerment, education, use of local technicians/skills/materials and appropriate levels of technology. They've got a center that he started out in Colorado that gives degrees in this stuff - a multidisciplinary program."

I remember sending pictures of our work to someone at EWB after a talk at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) this winter. I am hoping that their web site will make a switch in language as well and maybe they will start collaborating with technical schools and co-create curriculum with them... especially in terms of their energy and water crises.

It would be wonderful to start seeing the language co-create and replace Design for the Other 90%! I know some engineers at University of Michigan (Blue Lab and M-Heal) who want credit for designs over empowering technicians as well as who want to be THE next inventor to make a big impact. Everyone I asked if they were working with local technicians said no. They just show/illustrate/install the devices to/for them.

Personally, the techicians I work with in Uganda are more innovative than I am. I have lots of original great ideas, but they are not always practical (more of a physicist still and not quite a full-fledged engineer). The technicians are innovative and brilliant and make the electricity producing devices actually work (all with parts which can be purchased in Uganda). It is taking a while for me to convince them that they can truly design and engineer devices themselves. When I took M-Heal's alpha prototye for the surgical lamp, they said they could easily design a better system (in terms of cheaper and local materials). They were amazed that engineers go through multiple design steps before they reach a final product. I hope that regardless of what happens... that they learn to have faith in themselves. They are brilliant... just as brilliant as engineers here!

I wonder if the Industrial Revolution discussions African leaders have had could be addressed with empowering local technicians to be innovative and entrepreneurial. A curriculum to empower innovation instead of a curriculum to fix imported devices. If this could be interconnected with business university curriculum, then that would impact many smaller scale communities (ones without university curriculum in engineering, but with a technical school, for example).

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