November 11, 2014

Engineers Without Borders-USA Intl Conference

Updated December 8, 2014 – At times the Engineers Without Borders-USA National Conference had the feel of a family reunion for those of us who have been in it for the long haul. There was that familiarity of seeing faces from the past, but the meeting in Reston, Virginia, this month also offered a glimpse of the future of the humanitarian sector.

It has been two and a half years since the last national conference in the spring of 2012, and in that time the organization has seen growth:

  • The Engineering Service Corps has matured as a non-profit consulting arm of the organization with active projects in three continents.
  • Subject matter experts have formed Standing Content Committees to advise international project teams in highly technical best practices.
  • The Community Engineering Corps, in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Water Works Association, enables local domestic partnerships for projects within developing communities in the United States.
  • EWB-International has multiplied with local non-profit organizations in 62 countries worldwide, many of whom were in attendance for a global meeting that immediately preceded the conference.

Meanwhile, many of the 530 attendees were experiencing their first nationwide EWB-USA event and getting a firsthand view of the depth and breadth of its 15,000 members.

The EWB-USA staff and experienced practitioners had just returned from their first international event, a September 2014 global classroom in Panama City. This was EWB-USA’s first curricular event with academic credit awarded for coursework. As such, they delivered a no-frills conference, with only one plenary session (Stephen Sobhani and Raya the Muppet from Sesame Workshop). The event was chock full of relevant content and networking opportunities.

After an exciting and exhausting weekend, here are several key observations of the organization:

Ready or not, here come millennials with multi-disciplinary international experience. This will be a generation of idealistic innovators and entrepreneurs transforming the industry from the inside out.

From Education to Impact

As an organization founded on a college campus, EWB-USA earned a reputation as “the blueprint brigade,” an organization primarily concerned with technical education. At times, EWB-USA has even been accused of providing international “volun-tourism” for American college students without long-term impact. Those days are over. After detailed performance audits of existing projects in several countries, a year ago EWB-USA implemented a comprehensive Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation, & Learning (PMEL) process that is now required of all programs during and after their five-year community partnerships.

From Diaries to Data

In the good old days, we can remember EWB-USA conference breakout sessions and poster presentations centering largely on “what I did last summer,” as a sentimental show-and-tell. This year saw new sessions, led by EWB-USA members on data analytics, GIS community mapping, intercultural communication, public health assessment, failure mode analysis, participatory strategic planning, and other skills and competencies with a substantial emphasis on rugged, pragmatic-yet-technical rigor.

From Amateur to Professional

Now 12 years old, EWB-USA has graduated its first class of undergraduates now holding PE licenses, many of whom have maintained close ties to the organization early in their careers. Volunteer experiences with EWB-USA have a transformative impact on professional ambition and core values. This organization and its alumni are on a collision course with the engineering industry status quo. Ready or not, here come millennials with multi-disciplinary international experience. This will be a generation of idealistic innovators and entrepreneurs transforming the industry from the inside out, or joining the ranks of the emerging non-conventional humanitarian development engineering sector.

Ultimately, EWB-USA continues to evolve and train a new generation of engineering students and professionals to build a better world, one community at a time.

Author’s Note December 8, 2014

Without a doubt, EWB-USA’s maturation didn’t happen overnight– it has been an exciting adventure, with dozens of prior conferences, workshops, and forums as building blocks towards the expertise that was on display last month in Reston, VA. It was not my intent to be dismissive of past EWB-USA conferences, their participants, or their content.

The work that our student and professional members have accomplished over the past 12 years is making a tangible difference in grassroots communities around the world. By working only where we’re invited by local stakeholders and committing to a minimum of 5-year collaboration with our partners, EWB-USA has established its Principles of Development to promote sustainable community-driven relationships and elevate the discourse of development within the engineering profession, creating transformational experiences for engineering leaders of the future.

If you’d like more information on future events and opportunities to get involved with EWB-USA, please add a comment below.

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