EWB 2015 Asian Design Summit

Earlier this month Dr Cris Birzer, School of Mechanical Engineering went to the EWB 2015 Asian Design Summit in Cambodia to help Engineers without Borders (EWB) as a mentor. Here, he shares his experiences of the time spent in Cambodia:

The group consisted of 37 undergraduate engineering students from across Australia (seven from the University of Adelaide). The students ranged in discipline, year and university. There was an almost even split of male and female students (including staff we had 20 women out of 44 in total). The students all showed passion, interest, and a desire to use engineering as a way to help the world.

The Design Summit was an opportunity for students to learn about engineering in developing countries first hand. The students had to quickly learn to put away preconceptions about what they thought the Cambodians needed, learn how to engage with potential clients, understand their lives and from that, tease out ways that they could help. Understanding the lives of Cambodians requires understanding of the history and culture that make up Cambodia, as well as understanding their day-to-day lives.

The students showed a great willingness to learn, experience life and embrace what life threw their way. This included eating grubs, crickets, some sort of frog-thing and tarantulas. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be right to mentor and not share these experiences, so I too ate grub, cricket, the frog-thing and even a tarantula leg (I didn’t want to be greedy, so I left the rest to the students). Engineering really is much more than just technical work!

The students worked with local communities and identified areas that engineering could realistically improve, develop appropriate solutions, and delivered them. Two prototypes of their work are already being used successfully in villages near Kampot. The students really proved to be critical players in the communities they worked with. Despite their short stays they became invested in those communities and build life-long friendships. They used their skills to fix practical problems, and help build a safer and more prosperous Cambodia. This is exactly what we need in our engineering workforce. I admit that I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Cambodia. Having 37 undergraduate engineers in a country where beer is $0.75 and cocktails about $3 made me think it was just going to be hard work. Nonetheless, I came away proud of what the students achieved and learnt. If those 37 are any indication of the engineers that Australia is producing, then our profession is very safe and I am honoured to have been part of their experience.

In reflection of those two weeks, I believe I gained significantly from mentoring the students in that environment. Even as an academic who educates over 400 students each year, the small-group mentoring is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding. I’m aware that EWB run a number of these types of events each year throughout Australian and the rest of the world. Here in South Australia, Young Engineers Australia runs an excellent initiative called “Coffee Club” to help foster mentoring. For those members with experience to share, I highly recommend getting involved with one of the many programmes that exist.

Dr Cristian Birzer MIEAust
President, Engineers Australia South Australia

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