Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


by Mark Raleigh

Teaching Without Borders

Student-led projects need an academic underpinning.

Technical training alone is not enough - Mark RaleighIn its 2005 blueprint, “The Engineer of 2020,” the National Academy of Engineering stated that engineers were and should continue to be leaders in the movement toward sustainable development: “This should begin in our educational institutions and be founded in the basic tenets of the engineering profession and its actions.” Engineers, it went on, should “ethically assist the world in creating a balance in the standard of living for developing and developed countries alike.” Now, as we near the midpoint between that report and the 2020 horizon, how have universities responded? In general, progress has been slow at the top.

Many engineering students are given little opportunity to develop world awareness, a quality that encompasses cultural sensitivity, understanding of environmental issues, and ethics. This problem was noted in an alumni study published by David Wormley, Penn State’s engineering dean, at about the same time as the NAE report. Yet the engineering curriculum continues to be rigidly weighted toward technical courses. Cocurricular opportunities such as study abroad remain foreign to most engineering students.

Working at the grass roots, students themselves are trying to bridge the gap. The past decade has witnessed a movement toward international development engineering, or IDE, by numerous organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders and Engineers for a Sustainable World. The fuel for these organizations comes from students and young engineers who want to apply their technical education to address the basic needs of disadvantaged communities around the world.

A challenge for students is to elect empathy over sympathy and view themselves as capable collaborators, not caped crusaders. Engineers are inclined to see through their technical lens, and don’t know the history and culture of their partner communities. A problem with the traditional curriculum is that it is shaped in part by the end product, i.e., meeting ABET requirements and readying engineers for employment. It emphasizes technical skills required for projects in the United States and other wealthy and advanced nations, not the myriad of technical and nontechnical skills required to have a positive impact on “developing” communities. While IDE students benefit from the fundamental technical knowledge currently provided, they would be better prepared to understand their experiences with supplementary education in poverty theory, language, history, international studies, and anthropology.

Technical expertise will not guarantee success in the developing world, which is fraught with socio-political complexities and historic injustices that provide the context for IDE design projects – and impose some of the constraints. Building a reliable irrigation system for a community in South America has less to do with knowing hydraulic design and more to do with water economics, local agriculture practices, and regional politics.

While some engineering schools offer courses and programs to prepare IDE students, many have failed to update their curricula to provide holistic, interdisciplinary training for this application of engineering. More is needed. There must be a sea change in the engineering curriculum that includes widespread integration of IDE activities. Courses should be developed that prepare IDE students for the nontechnical aspects of projects and help them process their experiences after projects are completed. Some universities, like the Colorado School of Mines, offer minors and certificates in humanitarian engineering. The success of these programs should be evaluated, and other schools should consider adopting them.

The march toward the NAE vision of the “2020 Engineer” is being led by students and young engineers involved in IDE organizations, but there is a significant opportunity for educators to enhance the development of engineers as globally aware citizens by embedding IDE into the curriculum. There is also much to be learned about best practices in IDE. Putting them into an academic context would generate discussion about the complexities and difficulties of working toward a sustainable world.


Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering and past president of the Engineers Without Borders chapter at the University of Washington.




© Copyright 2012
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500