Engineering without borders

  • Published
  • By David Edwards
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Of all the things engineering leaders at the Air Force Academy hope their charges will build someday, relationships in the developing world are among the most important.

That sense of humanitarianism has given rise to a new class introduced to cadets this semester. Nine of them are taking part in the maiden voyage of Engr 495, taught by Maj. John Christ.

"The goal is for students to recognize the influence of local society and cultural relevance, to include their own cultural bias, in their selection of engineering remedies," Major Christ said. "By recognizing the importance of culture and society on engineering solutions, they're less likely to impose a Western solution at a location where that solution is unsustainable."

For that reason, the course is part sustainable engineering and part international relations. For example, cadets study topics such as electricity without carbon, the downstream ecological effects of dams and principles of green engineering.

But after that, they will be introduced to things like foreign aid, economic development and nongovernmental organizations, as well as engineering needs specific to the developing world, such as wastewater treatment and electrical power.

This innovative course was derived primarily from the overseas experiences of two Academy engineers, Major Christ and 2nd Lt. David Pool. Major Christ said the idea for the course came to him after a brief deployment to the National Military Academy of Afghanistan. While there, he saw "a need to focus on engineering solutions in developing nations."

That vision dovetailed perfectly with the work of Lieutenant Pool, a 2010 Academy graduate who was president of the Academy's Engineers Without Borders Chapter. Based on an independent study by another former cadet, Joe Kallevig, Lieutenant Pool helped write the curriculum for the interdisciplinary class that is being debuted this semester.

During his years as a cadet, he traveled extensively and saw firsthand the development gap in countries around the globe. The highlight, though, was his involvement in the Mango Tree Project, which was a collaboration of five students from various American universities on behalf of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.

The Mango Tree Project was hatched at the 2009 Academy Assembly, when Lieutenant Pool met Tufts University student Cody Valdes. The collaboration blossomed into a concerted effort to help the youth village, which takes in children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide.

Lieutenant Pool became the head civil engineer for the project, and during winter break his senior year, he joined his four colleagues in the endeavor on a trip to Rwanda.

"My experience in Rwanda gave me a greater appreciation and faith in my education that I actually know what to do to provide a real solution," Lieutenant Pool said. "I feel not many engineering undergrads right out of college can say that.

"I know how blessed I am because I know how much others don't have. There's no excuse for me to ignore the inequalities I have seen when I have the ability to work for equality of opportunity around the world."

So in the course he helped design, he wanted to confront other cadets with those same unfathomable disparities. To young people who have grown up surrounded by the comforts of Western life, basic necessities are taken for granted.

Overcoming the complacency and replacing it with a cultural awareness attuned to each situation is one of the primary lessons Lieutenant Pool sought to impart.

"A good sustainable engineering solution is an engineering solution to a social problem," he said. "So you must take into account all externalities, such as public perception, culture, religion, society, education, etc., and (the) general desire (and) ability to appreciate and maintain a solution."

The combination of cultural awareness and engineering acumen is intended to enrich the lives of the cadets. But the course is also geared toward their future as well. Any number of them may at some point be deployed in a developing country, and they will have to adjust to their surroundings.

"The real practical application of this course and the reason I think it is so important is ... it will allow students to consider alternative sustainable solutions," Major Christ said. "A number of our graduates entering the civil engineering career field are deploying within a year of graduation. My goal is that this course will help those that take it perform just a little better in the deployed environment."

And that's some social engineering the Air Force Academy can proudly deliver to the ends of the Earth.