Oregon State launches humanitarian engineering program

woman teaching

Grace Burleson, an engineering student at Oregon State University, works on an internship in Uganda. (Photo by Matt Rogers)

The Oregon State University College of Engineering has recently launched a humanitarian engineering program like few others in the nation, partly as a response to a growing number of students who want to make an impact both locally and globally.

Undergraduate students can now minor in this field, taking classes that emphasize the importance of socio-cultural, economic, environmental and resource management factors, and include work in ethics, social justice and cross-cultural communication.

Humanitarian engineering emphasizes science and engineering-based solutions that help to improve the human condition, access to basic human needs, the quality of life or level of community resilience. OSU’s program is one of only a few in the nation based in an academic curriculum.

The program reflects an engaged concept of service and the university’s historic land grant mission, officials say. Through it, students will explore case studies of development projects and a historic perspective on humanitarian interventions.

One OSU student who understands that concept is Grace Burleson, a graduating OSU senior majoring in mechanical engineering. She grew up as a missionary child and was reared by parents with a passion for helping underserved populations.

“When I got to college, I loved my engineering coursework but never got excited by applying it to things like cars or computers,” said Burleson. “I began research in humanitarian engineering and landed an internship in Uganda, working where I developed a sustainable business plan for the construction, distribution and maintenance of BioSand water filters.”

As a formalized academic program, humanitarian engineering will contribute to the effort of the OSU College of Engineering to become a recognized model as an inclusive and collaborative community.

“The program is attracting a more diverse group of prospective students than is typically attracted to engineering, including women,” said mechanical engineering professor Kendra Sharp, who directs the program, and was appointed the first Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering.

OSU is also one of just 10 universities nationwide to offer a Peace Corps Master’s International program in engineering. The university was the first in Oregon to join this initiative, which allows graduate students in several disciplines to get a master’s degree while doing a full 27-month term of service in the Peace Corps.

Multiple student organizations, including Oregon State’s award-winning Engineers Without Borders chapter and the American Society of Civil Engineering student chapter, have also been working on water, energy and other projects in the developing world.

“Students at Oregon State receive an accredited engineering degree, so adding on this minor opens many more doors and perspectives with how we look at engineering,” said Burleson. “It creates a gateway for really exciting and impactful projects.”

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