​Humanitarian engineering: creating and using technology to help people

Ohio State center is engaged in dozens of projects in Ohio, abroad

By: Renee Shaffer

Published on June 28, 2016

What does building wheelchair ramps in Columbus have in common with solar panel installation in Haiti?

Both are projects of The Ohio State University’s Humanitarian Engineering Center, a university initiative dedicated to creating technology that helps people.

Kevin Passino, director of the center, says that technology used primarily with people in mind is beneficial to every single one of us. The goals of the center, he says, are “the promotion of human dignity, human rights and human fulfillment.”

Officially formed in 2014, but stemming from humanitarian projects in Passino’s home department of Electrical and Computer Engineering dating back to the 1980s, Ohio State’s Humanitarian Engineering Center comprises an undefined and ever-changing group of students and faculty. There are typically 150-200 active students in the group each year, and the center draws from eight different student organizations.

Passino said the center prides itself on its interdisciplinary work with partners in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, the College of Social Work, the John Glenn College of Public Affairs and International Studies.

What exactly do these humanitarian engineers do? Each year, the center’s work is divided among about 10 trips around the world and ongoing local projects in Columbus. Despite the vast array of project descriptions ranging from building wheelchair ramps for underserved Columbus citizens to installing solar panels in schools in Haiti, the students on each trip are required to take a course in humanitarian engineering that blends technical and cultural information specific to the destination with a broad overview of the humanitarian engineering concept.

Projects also often result from the classroom-based capstone course in which engineering students put together their own project proposals. These courses are crucial to the values of the center, which are centered on the importance of learning about the people they are working with in order to come up with the most appropriate and culturally relevant technology.

Appropriate technology and cultural sensitivity is incredibly important to Michael Hagenberger, associate professor of civil, environmental and geodedetic engineering, who leads trips to Tanzania and works with the Maasai people near the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

On a trip last August, Hagenberger took a group of students to lay the groundwork for an infrastructure project that will pipe in water from the Pangani river to a Maasai village. This project is a joint effort by local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Kilimanjaro Hope as well as the Global Water Institute at Ohio State.

What makes this different from the numerous other water projects on the African continent? Hagenberger says it’s the local population’s level of commitment and involvement: Each decision is made in conjunction with the people being served. He and his team are not interested in building infrastructure and leaving, but instead have set an indefinite timeline that will involve yearly return trips to help maintain the water system and assist with the development of sustainable financial support until the Tanzanian government provides a way to regulate and fund it.

“This level of commitment is important because temporary aid in these areas is not always sustainable and can neglect a crucial aspect of cultural sensitivity,” he said.

Department of Engineering Education Professor Roger Dzwonczyk expresses similar sentiments. During spring break 2016, he took a team of student engineers to work on a project that began three years ago – the installation of solar panels in a Haitian school with no electricity located in a village west of Port-au-Prince. Dzwonczyk made sure to commit to a project that worked with an in-country partner, the Torch of Hope Foundation, as well as buying all supplies and materials in country to stimulate the local economy. In addition, his students work hand-in-hand with students from the local university, American University of the Caribbean, to do the project. After the project was completed this spring, the school now has enough solar power to provide lights, fans, cell phone charging and the ability to run a refrigerator or a water pump.

Here at home, Betty Lise Anderson directs a K-12 engineering outreach program. This team of students and faculty goes to local schools, libraries and summer camps and brings materials and simple projects that students can do. The Ohio State students themselves come up with the project ideas, usually as a capstone project.

A student with her LED light display

Projects have included developing paper speakers run with cardboard, a battery and wire; a flashing LED light; a circuit game; and an infrared heart-rate monitor. Many of these projects allow for school children to take their finished work home. What matters the most, says Anderson, professor of electrical and computer engineering, is that kids can build it, see that it works and feel successful. The outreach program is primarily directed at underserved schools and has served 12,456 students since 2008.

The Humanitarian Engineering Center is composed of engineers who want to make a difference, and are not content to study only the theory in their fields.

“I’m not concerned with my students getting their Ph.D.s in research,” Hagenberger notes. “I’d much rather have a student who gets a Ph.D. in helping people. I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.”

For more information, including giving opportunities, about the center, contact Kevin Passino at passino.1@osu.edu.

 Renee Shaffer is an intern in the Office of Media and Public Relations. This summer, she is participating in the Advancement Career Exploration (ACE) internship program in University Marketing.

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