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Engineering for Global Benefit

Engineering for Global Benefit

Jul 4, 2008

How one professor and a handful of students thought outside the box in terms of engineering education, and came up with new ways for engineering to change the world for the better.

There was no text book, students were recruited through a Facebook group, course material was determined by democratic process and the curriculum included altruistic experiences. The “Engineering for Global Benefit” course at Kettering, the brainchild of Dr. Laura Sullivan, professor of Mechanical Engineering, helped engineering students understand how to apply their knowledge to solving world problems such as providing clean drinking water in third world countries.
According to Sullivan, the philosophy behind the class is to make engineering relevant and meaningful. “Many college-aged people today are looking for ways they can make a difference in the world, and they want to see the impact of their work,” she said.
“Hearing a lecture or reading information in a textbook is valuable, but experiencing the effects of your work make a bigger impact,” Sullivan said, so she based a large part of the class around experiential learning and something else engineering students aren’t always comfortable doing – writing.
“It is documented that when people perform community service and they journal about their experience, the experience becomes more solidified in their psyche and they are more likely to take it forward and continue to perform community service throughout their lifetime, Sullivan explained. “There has to be reflection.”
Because there was no template for this type of course, Sullivan based the course on
topics found in the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. She gathered information where she could find it and, working with students, pieced together a curriculum focused on access to clean water, fair trade, world poverty and colonialism.

“I formed a Facebook group to determine the interest of students before offering the class,” she said. "About 80 students joined the Facebook group and discussed different areas to focus on. Water came up as one of the more popular areas of focus because of its relationship to health issues and the environment.”
One of the primary Millennium Development goals of the United Nations is providing everyone on the planet access to safe drinking water.
“There are no textbooks for this,” she said, “there are civil engineering courses that address some of the issues we have worked on, said Sullivan, “but none that deal with people and culture to this extent.” 
Course lectures, more discussions really, dealt with existing efforts to make global change such as the One and Red campaigns; why and where water is scarce on the planet; how to clean it in a reliable and easy to implement manner such as building a bio-sand filter; poverty and how to end it; colonialism; fair trade; sanitation systems and Non Government Organizations (NGOs).
Some of the class projects included having students develop catalogs for fair trade coffee, tea and cocoa with information on how companies communicate transparently and the class went to Chicago for Green Week where students had an opportunity to talk to fair trade vendors.
While most lectures for the course dealt with third world countries, Sullivan used experiential learning close to home to teach students about incorporating altruism with engineering.
Their introduction to altruism was an assignment to anonymously buy a meal for someone.
The second experiential assignment was also locally focused. Students did not have to perform an altruistic act anonymously, but they could reveal their motive. In other words, they had to do something nice but not explain that it was a class assignment. The students were not prepared for the suspicion of recipients whom they could not tell why they were volunteering time or donating something.
After the second assignment Sullivan wanted to give her students a more global experience without having to travel outside the country. She developed a three dimensional simulation in which students had to interact with “villagers” in a third world country who wanted wells like their neighboring villages, but whose ground water was contaminated with arsenic. She recruited high school students from a local church youth group to act as villagers. They were given a history, information about their culture and roles to play, prior to interacting with the Kettering students.
“I set up the Kettering students to fail,” admitted Sullivan of the exercise. Her goal was to illustrate that not all people want the help that is being offered to them, that sometimes they have an idea of what they want and they can be resistant to alternatives.
Sullivan gave each of the Kettering students one piece of information about the people and culture they would encounter. She directed the high school students in behaviors typical to third world villagers, including mistrust of outsiders, a hierarchical pecking order that allowed very few to speak directly with the village chief and culture mores involving women.
When the Kettering students became frustrated by the villagers’ cultural practices, Sullivan suggested they pay more attention to the cultural behaviors as a way to connect. “They learned they have to be around a culture for a period of time to build trust, and that they have to listen to what the people are saying they want and why,” she said. “That is how one comes up with a workable solution.”

Their final altruistic assignment involved the entire class. They visited the Marion Krause School for handicapped children in Flushing, Mich., to work with the occupational therapists in designing a sensory wall.
A sensory wall is a modular system using panels, each with a self-contained activity, texture or effect designed to meet specific educational targets including sensory integration, physical coordination, cause/effect, voice control, memory, social interaction.
The group constructed a system with 18 panels that includes light, sound, texture and manipulatives such as brushes and kitchen utensils.
Sullivan enjoyed the Engineering for Global Benefit class, and developing curriculum from scratch, but one aspect of the class she particularly liked was the gender mix. Traditionally Kettering has more male students than female students so classes have a smaller percentage of females to males. In the Engineering for Global Benefit class the numbers were almost even, changing the dynamic of the class in ways Sullivan said she could never have foreseen.
“The group coalesced very well, everyone meshed as engineers with no masculine or feminine perspective, just an engineering perspective,” she said.
Preparing to teach the course again in the summer term, Sullivan said she harbors hope that eventually Kettering will develop a center for service learning to make service learning a permanent part of the Engineering curriculum.
“This has been a great learning experience for me as a teacher, and I hope for the students as well,” she said.
For more information about the Engineering for Global Benefit class at Kettering University, contact Dr. Laura Sullivan at
Written by Dawn Hibbard