CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s humanitarian engineering program has received a major boost with a $1.5 million gift creating one of the nation’s only endowed professorships in this emerging field.
OSU alumni Richard and Gretchen Evans, of Northern California, made prior gifts that helped to launch OSU’s program two years ago, responding to growing interest among engineering students in making a lasting, positive impact on the world.
Humanitarian engineering seeks science- and engineering-based solutions to improve the human condition by increasing access to basic human needs such clean water or renewable energy, enhancing quality of life, and improving community resilience, whether in face of natural disasters or economic turmoil. Although the greatest needs often lie in developing countries, needs also exist locally.
Oregon State’s program is focused on disadvantaged communities in the Pacific Northwest as well as around the world.
“The technical skills of engineering are essential, but so are abilities we might call human skills – such as communication, problem-solving, leadership and the ability to work across cultures,” said Richard Evans, an OSU College of Engineering alumnus who was president and CEO of Alcan, a Fortune-100 mining company and aluminum manufacturer based in Montreal. “The humanitarian engineering curriculum is a structured way for engineers to practice those human skills in challenging, real world settings.”
Drawing on the humanities also encourages creative solutions by “thinking outside the box,” added Gretchen Evans, an artist and interior designer who graduated from OSU’s College of Education and subsequently completed master’s courses at Legon University in Ghana, West Africa. “Listening is so important – not just believing that we know all of the answers going into every situation.”
The first Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering is mechanical engineering professor Kendra Sharp, who directs the program.
“One of the things that’s most exciting about humanitarian engineering is that it captures the interest of a more diverse group of prospective students than we typically see in engineering, including a significant number of women,” Sharp said. “We are thrilled that the Evans’ gift will help us channel students’ passion for making a better world. The stability provided by this endowment will make a huge difference as we move forward.”
Oregon State’s humanitarian engineering program is grounded in a campus-wide emphasis on engaged service that springs from the university’s historic land grant mission. Multiple student organizations, including OSU’s award-winning Engineers Without Borders chapter and the American Society of Civil Engineering student chapter, have been working on water, energy and other projects in under-served Oregon communities and the developing world.
Yet in contrast to humanitarian engineering programs that are primarily an extracurricular activity, Oregon State’s is one of a handful nationwide rooted in an academic curriculum. Exemplifying OSU’s commitment to collaborative, transdisciplinary research and education, the curriculum was put together by a diverse group of faculty led by the College of Engineering but also involving the humanities, public health and education. A new undergraduate minor in humanitarian engineering will be open for enrollment in the coming year.
OSU’s humanitarian engineering program is further differentiated by residing in a university that also offers a Peace Corps Master’s International program in engineering. OSU was the first university in Oregon to join this program, which allows a graduate student to get a master’s degree while doing a full 27-month term of service in the Peace Corps. In addition to PCMI degrees in other fields, Oregon State remains one of just 10 universities nationwide to offer this degree in engineering.
College of Engineering Dean and Kearney Professor of Engineering Scott Ashford said that the humanitarian engineering professorship positions Oregon State for national leadership in this area while supporting one the college’s highest goals.
“We are dedicated to purposefully and thoughtfully increasing the diversity of our students and faculty, building a community that is inclusive, collaborative and centered on student success,” Ashford said. “This is the community that will produce locally conscious, globally aware engineers equipped to solve seemingly intractable problems and contribute to a better world. That’s the Oregon State engineer.”
Richard Evans is a senior international business adviser and director of companies including non-executive chairman of both Constellium, producer of advanced aluminum engineered products, and Noranda Aluminum Holdings, a U.S. regional aluminum producer. He is an independent director of CGI, Canada’s largest IT consulting and outsourcing company. In addition to her art, primarily in acrylics and mixed media, Gretchen Evans volunteers as an art teacher in a low-income Oakland, California, school.
Over the last decade, donors have established 81 endowed faculty positions at Oregon State, an increase of 170 percent, through gifts to the OSU Foundation. These prestigious positions help the university recruit and retain world-class leaders in teaching and research, with earnings from the endowments providing support for the faculty and creating opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in the programs as well.