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World challenge

With 4,500 members in 35 UK universities, charity Engineers Without Borders has taken off in the UK. Chief executive Andrew Lamb and research coordinator Alex Buckman tell Rebecca Hill about their aim to take engineering around the world.

“Today, about 1 billion people live in slums, which are essentially cities without any engineering infrastructure,” says Andrew Lamb, chief executive of Engineers Without Borders. I had asked him about the motivations behind his work with the UK division of the international charity. “By 2030—when today’s undergraduates are mid-career—that number is estimated to reach 2.5 billion. The idea that engineers could be doing anything with their time other than solving that problem is bonkers.”

When the first UK branch of EWB started life, 10 years ago, it was little more than a student club at the University of Cambridge. Lamb and some fellow students felt they were being fed a diet of concrete, combustion, steel and silicon. They wanted to travel to developing countries to work on the engineering challenges that would help tackle poverty—the problems they would inherit as professionals.

Using links with industry and non-governmental organisations, the group has sent hundreds of undergraduates to work overseas for three-month stints, anywhere from Sierra Leone to Peru. One of the first placements was a trip to India to look at water-quality testing. “Even small-scale projects can make a big difference to people’s lives,” says Lamb.

From this small start came a programme in 2005 to help students with their research projects, putting them in contact with NGOs, helping them to design their projects and generally offering advice on working in developing countries.

At first, EWB worked with undergraduates then masters students and PhDs got involved. “I know from my time at university that a lot of final year projects were recycled and weren’t particularly meaningful,” says Alex Buckman, research coordinator at EWB in the UK. “EWB projects allow students to develop an appreciation of more than just the technical side, which is really important.”

Now a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, Buckman is one of the many volunteers EWB relies upon to keep costs down. But how have supervisors taken to EWB’s involvement in training their students? Buckman says their response has been overwhelmingly positive, while Lamb acknowledges there have been some hurdles to overcome when persuading people of the benefits of working in poverty-stricken countries.

“There’s often quite a flawed view that, because it’s poverty reduction work and you’re in very resource constrained areas, the technology you need to use is somehow easy or ‘noddy’ engineering,” he says. “Actually, I think the resource constraints and the unusual problems make the engineering a hell of a lot more challenging.”

Lamb also says that engineering might be more appealing to women if there was a greater respect for what he describes as “people-sized engineering”—work with a real-world impact. “I really don’t understand how the engineering profession has managed to get this so badly wrong for so long,” he says. “I think there’s a lot that could be done, quite easily, to make it more attractive to women.”

For him, engineering should be about the relationship between technologies and people, not how big or fast something is. This is what he believes sets EWB apart from the rest of the engineering world.

Nearly half of EWB members in the UK and around 30 to 40 per cent of its research students are women, so they appear to be doing something right. “Maybe that says something about who we are, or what we do,” Lamb says. Or, he adds, maybe it says something about the social factors stopping women from going into engineering—perhaps simply having women visibly involved in the group encourages others to follow suit.

But it’s not all plain sailing, something that becomes apparent when I ask about bringing partners in developing countries to the UK. “You’ve touched on a bit of a nerve there actually,” says Lamb. “We’ve been trying to organise a meeting of EWBs from around the world, the first time we’ve tried to gather everyone together in Europe, and basically, the issue of getting everyone’s visas has meant we’ve had to call the whole thing off.”

Despite the challenges, Lamb says he has confidence that EWB will continue brokering deals between engineering students, NGOs and developing countries. “What we’re offering our international partners is a huge amount of resources,” he says. “Getting that sort of brain power dedicated to a technology project for a community in rural Nigeria is just absolutely mind-blowing.”

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