Sustainable development in Engineering

A student perspective on a student-led hydroelectric power project to aid communities in Uganda

Nikhil Gulati, a second year Mechanical Engineering student at the School of Engineering, University of Warwick reflects on his learning about Engineering as a discipline and the impact of Engineering on wider community and society issues, particularly in relation to how engineers may contribute to improving the quality of life in developing countries. The full reflection can be found here.

In his reflection, while Nikhil considers his developing discipline-specific and transferable skills over time, he emphasises, in particular, “developing the skills to become an active member of society; someone who can make a difference” and comments very positively on the “mindful approach to the effect our efforts as professional engineers have on the wider community” taken by all members of the School of Engineering, including through their approach to course design and teaching.

Nikhil is also a member of the ‘Engineers without Borders’ society at his university, and through his society involvement, he learned new practical skills (for example, spot welding) which, he felt, greatly complemented his learning from lectures. Nikil, and his fellow Engineering undergraduates, had the opportunity to apply both their theoretical content knowledge and practical skills by working on sustainable development university projects in developing countries. In his reflection, Nikil considers in some detail his work on the university’s student-led hydroelectric power project to aid communities in Uganda, the ultimate goal of which is to enable the community to independently manage their important resource.

Nikhil describes a collaborative process, in which local workers and the students work towards the shared goal of project completion. He explains that the students drew on their developing project skills to assist the community workers in their physical work, and student-community meetings were regularly held to ensure sustainability of project outcomes, for example, in terms of the maintenance of the generator installed subsequent to project completion. Nikhil’s reflection also demonstrates his beginning negotiations of the theory-practice nexus, as he draws on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in attempting to understand community members’ apparent lack of concern for health and safety issues, in their eagerness to secure their supply of electricity. His reflection also demonstrates his developing ability to contextualise this community project in relation to development issues more broadly on a global level, and to situate and critically understand the engineer’s role in contributing to community and global development goals. Nikil ends by calling for this sort of approach to be embedded in more university Engineering programmes, in order that more “engineers of tomorrow [can] contribute to the task at hand”, and for engineering research to align more with international development goals. Nikhil’s reflection also raises critical concerns and important questions about the power of transnational companies in developing countries, and the roles of engineers therein, particularly in relation to resources, reinvestment, profit, and future sustainable development.

Nikil’s reflection clearly demonstrates his deep learning about the potential contribution engineers can make, and the important role they can play, in developing countries.