- 12:30 PM

Preparing 21st Century Engineering Students through a Student-Initiated Interdisciplinary Service-Learning Project

Alexander Bick, Dana Lazarus, and Harvard College Engineers Without Borders. School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, 29 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

As traditional demarcations between academic disciplines fade, and the virtual distance between Boston and Bangalore approaches zero, the engineering educator faces new challenges and unique opportunities. Preparing chemical engineering students to operate in international collaborative efforts is of critical importance in our global society. Engineering students should be equally conversant with anthropologists as their fellow chemical engineers, and as fluent in Spanish as in MatLab. This contribution presents findings of a two year old experiment in student initiated sustainable design education.

Harvard College Engineers without Borders (EWB) is an interdisciplinary group of 30 undergraduate and graduate students that seeks to collaboratively extend and expand their classroom knowledge, while transferring pre-existing technological skills to a developing community. Presently in collaboration with Doctors from Boston's Children's Hospital, Harvard EWB is actively working with the town of Constanza in the Dominican Republic. Activities range from the construction of sustainable water systems, to empowering the community through hygiene, waste management, and technical education. The overall objective is to design and implement a comprehensive system that will decrease the prevalence of water-borne illness. This project was initiated by Harvard students, with contributions from the Constanza community, Harvard faculty and professional medical and engineering advisors.

Harvard EWB exemplifies educational initiatives in student learning, interdisciplinary engineering, international education, and sustainable design. Involvement in all stages of the design process, compared with a more traditional engineering course, has lead to new experiences including grant writing, problem identification, selecting appropriate technologies and attention to implementation and logistical details during construction. Our bottom-up approach has increased student engagement and requires students to start by asking questions rather than searching for solutions to predefined questions. At the same time, our search for a comprehensive solution has thus far required expertise from engineers in many backgrounds. Students with backgrounds in natural science, social science and the humanities have also contributed, and as a result engineering students are learning to communicate with other scientists, non-scientists, and local community members alike. The successes and challenges of this bidirectional education experiment highlight its truly interdisciplinary nature.