Engineering with a human face

New program geared towards development work

Jonathan Vandersteen and Jamie Miller are spearheading a humanitarian engineering program.
Jonathan Vandersteen and Jamie Miller are spearheading a humanitarian engineering program.

Jamie Miller is developing a new Masters program that will be the first of its kind in Canada.

Miller, a Masters student himself, is working to create an environmental engineering program that focuses on projects in developing communities and disaster relief.

Miller, who is developing the project as part of his degree, said he hopes it will encourage students to look at engineering from a different perspective.

“[The program will] question the way engineering has been done and can be done for development of marginalized communities in Canada and the rest of the world,” he said.

Miller said the course will have a multidisciplinary curriculum.

“We expect technical and non-technical courses, seminar series, volunteer experiences and a term abroad,” he said. “Courses are geared towards ethical, sustainable, and practical technology integration, as well as other important aspects of engineering such as ethics, politics, religion, environmental policy or law.”

Elements will also be incorporated into the fourth year of the engineering undergrad program, offered as an option in all 10 departments.

Miller said he hopes the program will give insights into environments and perspectives to which engineering students are rarely exposed.

“[This program will] help students see the good and bad of international engineering and the intricacies of working in foreign places ... [and] provide an opportunity for interested and inspired students to use their skills with a community that struggles to meet their basic human needs,” he said.

Another factor differentiating the humanitarian engineering program from others in the department is the emphasis on social mores and customs, Vandersteen said.

“We will be offering technical courses where social constraints will be a very important part of the design process,” he said. “We will be focusing on technical issues while constantly stressing the importance of politics, economics and sociology.”

The graduate program will begin in September 2007, and an undergraduate program is in the works for September 2008.

Civil engineering professor Kevin Hall, who is overseeing the project’s development, said he has really seen a large interest in aiding the world at Queen’s.

“People want to make a difference in the world, and it’s a really neat thing to see happening,” he said. “In the ’80s and ’90s, everyone was geared to make as much money as they can. It’s just really nice to see students come through these days ... I find it very refreshing.”

Hall said the idea behind the program is to enable students to apply their engineering skills in a variety of different cultural, religious and developmental settings.

“A big part of our goal, I think, is having people that are socially aware of the world around them,” he said. “We need to make our students more socially aware.”

Hall said he hopes the program will attract about 25 to 50 students a year.

Although the program is still in the initial planning stage, a key component will be a placement in a developing country, Miller said.

Hall said these placements, which could entail anything from building a freshwater system to low-cost housing, will be paid for by an alumni endowment.

“A really important part of this program is actually to get out and do something—be involved with one or two projects in some location around the world,” he said. “To be on the ground and to learn how to communicate is a very important part of the program.”

PhD student Jonathan Vandersteen, who is working with Miller to develop the program, said that with a growing need to connect education with a social agenda, the program should give them a chance to see how their acquired skills may be used for equality and social justice.

“Students like the idea of engineering, but don’t always see the service aspect,” he said. “Our program will teach that engineering can be about helping others.” Any student who would like more information on the program should contact

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