UBC students design engineering solutions for humanitarian projects around the world

There was a waiting list for a popular new UBC course being offered this year called “humanitarian engineering.”

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For the first time, the University of BC has created a course that brings together arts and engineering students to find solutions to humanitarian crises both here in BC and around the world.

UBC environmental engineering student Harishankar Krishnan grew up in Malawi and witnessed many challenges in water supply.

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His experience inspired him to study engineering to find real-world solutions for some of the communities facing water treatment or supply issues.

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This semester, Krishnan was one of 60 third- and fourth-year students who were accepted into UBC’s new interdisciplinary course. The students divided up to work on nine projects.

While some of the students worked with NGOs in India or other countries, Krishnan’s team was tasked with solving water problems for the Lytton First Nation in British Columbia.

For their project, Krishnan and his team spoke with a First Nations water operator about the water treatment challenges the community faces, particularly for people living in a climate disaster zone where heat waves and fires forests are a concern.

“We must also consider that flooding will occur in the coming years due to increased rainfall or runoff due to reduced tree cover,” he said. “If there is a big flood or a lot of fires and then a flood, then the water becomes very cloudy or has a lot of sediment. “So we made sure our treatment system could handle that amount of variation.”

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Harishankar Krishnan is an engineering student at UBC. He was one of 60 students who took a new course that brings together arts and engineering students to develop solutions for humanitarian crises. Photo: Geetha Jayakrishnan Photo by Geetha Jayakrishnan /sun

Arts students, mostly political science, sociology or international studies, and applied science (engineering) students worked together with the First Nation to devise a point of entry system (one that works in every home) because Krishnan he said it. It is much cheaper than a large decentralized water treatment center for smaller communities.

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Students propose solutions for individual communities based on their socioeconomic needs, rather than simply designing a one-size-fits-all solution, he said.

The idea started with Andrew Sheroubi, a former UBC engineering student who now works for Delco Water.

In 2018, he held a student-led seminar, which is a program at UBC in which students create a course for credit. The course brought together engineering students to discuss the political and socioeconomic considerations necessary when designing solutions such as water systems for communities with specific needs.

During the project, he collaborated with Gabriel Potvin, teaching associate professor in the UBC Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Jenny Peterson, teaching associate professor and co-chair of the International Relations Program in UBC’s political science department. .

Potvin and Peterson were the teachers of the inaugural course.

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Electrical engineering student Drédyn Fontana discusses his team’s project in the final presentation of UBC’s new Humanitarian Engineering course. Students from faculties of arts and applied sciences come together to design solutions to humanitarian challenges on behalf of non-governmental organisations. Photo: Rebecca Lyon/UBC Applied Sciences. Photo by photo: Rebecca Lyon/UBC Applied /sun

Sheroubi, who attended some lectures this semester, said he was delighted that the idea had been transformed into a course and attracted students from different areas of study.

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“It’s a sign of a good class when class ends at 7 pm and no one leaves immediately. Every time I attended, people stayed and talked to each other. They are having conversations with me and the teachers,” she said.

“Engineers like to approach problems with fixed solutions. But with this program there is more holistic thinking. “Students are looking at the big picture.”

Karl Zimmermann recently earned a PhD from UBC in environmental engineering and, as part of his research, partnered with the group Get Water Uganda and other NGOs working on water solutions.

While in Uganda, he had the idea that a water kiosk system would be an interesting design project for college students, so he partnered with Potvin to help him design an assignment for the new course.

“The idea is to pump water from a lake, which then needs to be treated… and that was up to the students to figure out, and also how it would be stored in the community,” Zimmermann said.

“We posed all these challenges to the students and said, ‘Okay, can you design a kiosk system that can work in this context and also be off-grid because there’s no electricity?’”

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A woman carries a jerrycan of water home from a community kiosk in Lugala, Uganda. Get Water Uganda is a non-governmental organization that serves communities in need of water and is among the NGOs that have been working with UBC students on the Humanitarian Engineering course. Photo: Karl Zimmermann/Get Water Uganda. Photo by Photo: Karl Zimmermann/Get Water /sun

Audrea Wang, a fourth-year political science arts student, also took the course and was part of a group tasked with designing a sanitation system in India that could help during flooding, which is becoming more intense due to climate change. .

“Someone in our group proposed doing something related to a dry toilet or a composting toilet. And then our main challenge was figuring out how to make it more flood resistant,” he said.

They not only had to design a bathroom, but also work with the NGO to discover the social needs of the community.

“We don’t want to offer monetary incentives or just provide the bathroom directly. “We want them to really own what they are building,” Wang said.

“And with climate change, flooding is getting worse, especially during the monsoon season. They can become very strong and submerge many different things. That’s why we tried to design a latrine where there would be less water contamination.”

Potvin said the course was so popular there was a waiting list. Some of those who wait will have the opportunity to do so next year.

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“It has reinvigorated students’ passion for working on humanitarian projects,” he said.

Students also had to make evaluations of previous humanitarian engineering projects and explain the failure or success of those projects from a social or political perspective, Peterson said.

One of the examples was analyzing why a fish processing plant was built in a nomadic community. Because they moved, they could not be tied to the plant. So this was a great engineering project that failed because they did not take into consideration the social aspects, something that this new course aims to change.

Another challenge that frequently arose was gender issues. For example, many water projects don’t take into account that in many cultures it is women or children who collect water, but they are often designed for a man to operate, he said.

“Students were trained to think about the connections between technology and society,” he said.


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