I’m bullish on our country’s scientific and engineering future because more scientists and engineers are multiculturalists, sensitive and empathetic.
I was in the Bolivian Andes, 14,000 feet up. The 1970s-vintage water pipeline that snaked from a seep, across a river and down to the village’s water tank was slowly failing. Our engineering team from the University of Washington — with me as a mentor — was stuck. We couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t performing. Was the pipe just old, broken, leaking; was someone pirating water; or was there not the same volume of water coming from the seep that had been used for hundreds of years?
During that moment of frustration, I remember thinking: “We can’t just solve this with science and engineering know-how alone. We can’t analyze our way out of this. What do we do?”
In the end, that project was successful. Why? Because our team held community meetings and we involved the villagers in the design process. The elders remembered a rudimentary water-rights treaty; others pointed to broken piping and poorly managed spigots. In essence, the whole system needed replacing.
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That was a light-bulb moment in my engineering career. My team saw firsthand the power of collaborating with the community to achieve science-backed goals. In other words, we practiced something I’ve come to embrace whether in Bolivia, or the U.S., as “engineering with soul.”
In my science and engineering career, I often see that in our excitement to solve hard technical problems we diminish the key step of engaging with the people who will use the technologies (water, sanitation, structural, agricultural and energy systems). How to interact beyond the technical was not routinely emphasized when I was in school or when I started my career — it took me stumbling outside my corporate and consulting element to truly understand it.
What about tomorrow’s engineers and scientists? When we prize the “thing” over the people who use that “thing,” we risk creating a model of success that our next generation sees as attainable only through analytical horsepower. We need to show that community engagement during and, most important, after a project, is critical to reshaping how we define success.
I found my light-bulb moment because of Engineers Without Borders USA — the reason I went to Bolivia. The organization has 16,000 volunteers doing work in 42 countries. Through my volunteer work, I’ve learned that humanitarianism is a reciprocal act: I receive as much as I give. In Bolivia, it was clear that the community had more knowledge than I did with my advanced degree. Since I couldn’t just out-science the problem, I learned a different way.
My pathway to making an impact came from listening and empathy. In other words, in the jargon of engineering — the “soft” skills — or what I call “human” skills. These human skills are hard for anyone, and sometimes harder still for engineers and scientists wired to view the world through analytical eyes.
Your path doesn’t have to be mine. But, whatever you do, take steps to get outside of your comfort zone.
I’m encouraged, even bullish, with our country’s science and engineering future and successes to come. Why? Our future success will be founded in those who are multiculturalists, sensitive and empathetic. This group continues to grow in numbers. This group, which excels at the community level, is leading all of us into a world that on the surface seems fractured and uncertain.
We, as scientists and engineers, need to do more, be more and say more within the communities in which we participate. We need to “engineer with soul” here in the U.S. and around the world.