December 11, 2018

Engaging Students in Humanitarian Technology Projects: Six Expert Recommendations

How to engage students in humanitarian technology work was the topic of much discussion at the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference 2018. The event showcased a number of student-led projects, such as, low-cost eye examination kits and apps for teaching sexual health. They exemplified a theme among the attendees, the search for meaningful and ethical work for students in the field of global development engineering. Here are six recommendations from professors and experts in the field that emerged from the talks.

1. Define the design method

Kofi Taha (MIT D-Lab) described three methods of design: “Design for,” “Design with,” and “Design by.” The first is commonly used among university service learning projects where students collect end-user data and design a solution to meet their needs. The second, also termed “Co-design,” is an increasingly popular method where trained engineers work together with end-users to solve a problem. The final, and more hands-off method, is giving the end-users the tools and empowerment to design their own solutions. Taha stressed the importance of recognizing which process is most appropriate for their specific problem and subsequently using the best practices of that specific method.

2. Define the project scope

It  is essential that projects undertaken by university student groups are well-defined in their scope and designed to be achievable within their given timeline. Eric Verploegen (MIT D-Lab) discussed how breaking up a larger and more long-term project into smaller pieces allows students in his semester classes to contribute in a specific and impactful way. At the same time, students are more likely to learn better practices and have a more meaningful experience when the project is not too overwhelming or too insignificant.

3. Engage an interdisciplinary team

More and more we are seeing universities incorporate interdisciplinary teams into their curriculum. This is an especially important skill for students who wish to work in international development or humanitarian efforts. Among projects presented at GHTC, a group of students at Lehigh University presented their work of developing a sustainable mushroom growing system for farmers in Cambodia. One of the factors that led to their project’s success was the teams’ diversity. The teams were gender diverse and interdisciplinary with students from engineering, economics, and public health, among others. These students showed the importance of teams that include students with different backgrounds and skills.

4. Aim for long-term

Good solutions fail if long-term relationships are not formed, and long-term project plans are not implemented. For example, Mark Henderson (Arizona State University) presented their work on Biochar production, using invasive plant species as feedstock, in rural Nepal. After one year of work, it was found that the male Nepalese villagers originally collaborated with were not continuing the project as planned. Instead, it became obvious the project needed to pivot to align with female villagers. Without a second year of work, the project would not have impact.

5. “Co-design systems, not products”

Khanjan Mehta (Lehigh University) discussed the need for a systems thinking approach to humanitarian technology development. The design of standalone products is not the way to have long-term impact, but instead we need to collaborate with community members to design the support systems around products. Similarly, John Gershenson (Pennsylvania State University) presented the use of local entrepreneurs and 3D printers in Kenya as a way of supplying spare parts to hospitals in areas with no formal supply chain. The product (3D printer and medical equipment parts) were already designed, but the support system for implementation was crucial for long-term impact and was co-designed with local entrepreneurs.

6. Set a goal and stick to it

When asked what her most successful project was, Macauley Kenney (Instiglio) responded that it was impossible to answer without discussing what success meant to each individual project. For example, university servicing learning projects could have real community impact or could develop students into highly competent engineers, with potential for long-term impact. These two objectives can result in vastly different projects. This discussion was repeated many times at GHTC with the consensus being that while both objectives are acceptable, project coordinator’s needs to be clear about which is the primary objective as this will inform how the project is planned, delivered and evaluated.

In Conclusion

Working with communities on the other side of the world is no simple task. As educators, it is important to provide students with life-changing educational experience. However, this can never be at the expense of local communities. Aiming for long-term collaborations, using best design practices, and striving for ethical impact are key components of any humanitarian project.


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