Technical Knowledge

Engineering requirements have sometimes focused primarily on technical, engineering specific content.  Students participating in international service-learning projects, such as EWB, have the valuable opportunity to apply their technical knowledge to a real world project.  For this study technical knowledge was defined to include science, math, and engineering principles as well as more general problem solving techniques.  Students applied this knowledge to engineering challenges such as designing a water distribution system and constructing biosand filters.  They collected quantitative and qualitative data to inform their design decisions and often encountered obstacles, which required problem solving.

While working with limited data and limited resources students developed a better understanding of how engineering works in the real world.  Many reported being able to make informed assumptions as a key characteristic of being an engineer.  On the whole, there were many ways that being involved in this process helped students develop their identity as an engineer and increased the confidence they had in their engineering abilities.

Within this category the following subcategories emerged from student reports: confidence in engineering ability, problem solving, further developed engineering identity, applied classroom learning, the acceptance of ambiguous information, and working with limited resources.

Confidence in engineering ability

 1. It’s not just the skill of making assumptions, although that is important…It’s the confidence. And that’s the big part, is that a lot of people don’t realize that when you’re starting out, what’s more important than the skill is the confidence to just do it, you know, start something.  -Guatemala Trip Participant

2. You can learn in a textbook, but actually seeing it happen in real life, made a big difference. It definitely helped in system design later on. –Cameroon Trip Participant

3. You get the census data, you find out where the populations are, find out how much water they use. You find out how much water you bring. And then, you design a distribution system such that each standpipe has a fair amount of pressure. And you use tanks to control for differences in elevation.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot about fluid mechanics and designing rural water systems. – Cameroon Trip Participant

Students expressed that using their engineering skills in the real world gave them a new sense of confidence in their engineering ability.  Some students were able to see concepts they learned in class applied in real world environments that enhanced their understanding of the concepts as well as their ability to apply them.  As the student in quote 1 indicated, they learned that engineering requires you to make assumptions, but these must be knowledgeable assumptions which is a skill you develop as an engineer. Students 2 noted how seeing concepts they had learned in a textbook operate in the real world improved their ability to participate in designing the system.  Other, typically less experienced students, said they were learning different engineering skills while on-site that had not been covered in classes yet.  The travel team in Cameroon was using water probes to perform a variety of water quality tests.  One student said how after doing this for a number of different water sources and analyzing the results she was able to better relate these quantitative and qualitative properties and what caused them.

In many cases the students seemed to place more credibility on the ability to execute an engineering design project through experience in the real world than a project carried out in class.   Their EWB experience offered the opportunity to do this and once they saw they had knowledge and skills to contribute to the project being completed on-site, their overall technical confidence increased.  Looking at the summation of the design process as discussed in quote 3, it is clear that this experience helped them apply their engineering skills in an effective way.

Problem solving

4. But it’s one of the things that I would say is absolutely crucial to an experience such as this, is being able to be adaptive and flexible and make key decisions on the fly.     -Cameroon Trip Participant

5. And what I thought was the best part was the fact again, that we got to interact, but that also that we could explain what was happening … especially the construction practices, what was important for the construction processes and how the changes made a difference. You know, just the addition of a gasket on the bottom to seal in the concrete; the addition of clamps to seal stuff up. While it was our creative minds that thought of it, it was our ability to explain it that actually would keep it going in the future. And, yeah, it was just high communication. – Guatemala Trip Participant 

6. I learned quite a bit from trying to solve the problem.  Because we had to think critically to overcome the obstacle rather than just coasting through the implementation, I learned more about biosand filters and about the character of the construction workers. – Guatemala Trip Participant

Students told many accounts of having to use problem solving while on-site. As quotes 4 and 6 indicate this problem solving was a highly valuable part of the experience and increased the learning they took away.  Many tasks students were performing were unfamiliar to them and led to unanticipated obstacles.  Being in a new environment meant they did not have the resources they typically relied on such as the Internet, a textbook, or even basic tools like string or devices for measuring.  Quote 5 discusses about being able to modify the designs on the fly because they were proficient in their understanding of how the filters they were building worked.  In two other instances students mentioned that by working with locals they were able to come up with appropriate solutions.  These were highly valuable experience both because of the lessons the students took away from it and from the bonding that happened between the team and the local partners.

Further developed engineering identity

7.  I learned an important distinction in what it means to be an engineer: an engineer’s job is to provide people with the technology to improve their livelihoods. – Guatemala Trip Participant

8.  Interviewer: What have you learned about yourself as an engineer, as a person, as a professional?

A: Well, I’ve learned that before, I was more environmentally focused, but now I want to go into hydro systems, and I’ve learned that I’m really passionate about water in general, water quality. So, that’s what I want to go into as a result of this project. And about myself, that I can step up to the plate and teach others to believe things, if the time comes, if the need is there. -Cameroon Trip Participant

 9.  I kind of learned that engineers do a lot of data collection and data analysis and stuff. And make a lot of assumptions. – Guatemala Trip Participant 

10.  I came back thinking I’m not going to end up in a water treatment facility the rest of my life. I’ve got to either switch careers several times as an engineer, or seek out new projects, or be the one in the firm who is, you know, bidding on projects to make sure they’re interesting and different and like pushing the firm’s limits. I don’t know. So that was career-wise kind of an insight.  – Cameroon Trip Participant

For many of the students who participated in this study, their definition of what it means to be an engineer was broadened and deepened through international experiences.  One stated that being an engineer meant collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data until a design emerged whereas the student in quote 7 noted the difference between design and use of engineering technology.  A common theme was having students have confidence in their engineering ability so as to feel comfortable making necessary assumptions.  Some had further insight into what direction they wanted to take their careers as seen in quotes 10 and 8.  One student saw herself shift from an environmental focus towards hydraulics while another student recognized her design to seek careers that gave her the ability to manage projects.

Applied classroom learning

11.  But I think from my perspective, it definitely made me want to go back and re-read things and make sure I’m understanding and able to link concepts so that I can apply them out in the field. So, it’s more intuitive and it’s not like plugging into an equation and understanding. – Cameroon Trip Participant

12.  I think EWB really bridges this gap between things you learn and apply them in real life situations. -Cameroon Trip Participant 

13.  The first-hand experience that I gained back in the United States overshadowed anything related to engineering that I learned in Guatemala, but the life experience that I obtained in Guatemala overshadowed anything that I could have learned on campus.  In summary, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to travel.  More than that, however, I am grateful for the opportunity to see engineering skills applied to real world problems. – Guatemala Trip Participant

Students saw many connections between what they had learned in their classes and their experience working on-site as in quote 12.  Most expressed that there was some level of application of their academic learning while in the field but the extent and directness of that application varied by student.  For instance, the students in quote 13 felt they learned life skills more than engineering skills, but still valued the real world context of their trip abroad.  Often the repeat traveler students were able to more clearly see how their classroom learning had impacted their work abroad while newer students to the project did not feel their curriculum had directly affected their work for the project.

Taking part in an engineering project that is based in the real world enabled students to understand why the material learned in class was important and how it could be applied to the physical world.  As indicated in quote 11, the student had renewed motivation to thoroughly learn the material taught in class after their experience abroad.  This often shed new light on concepts and their importance, increasing student’s motivation to learn concepts thoroughly.

Acceptance of ambiguous information

14.  Don’t sit around and panic that you don’t have enough data; you don’t have all the variables. You’ve got to start something. That’s something I’ve learned over all my work in EWB. – Guatemala Trip Participant

15.  We need to know how much water we need and where we need it. The difference between a 1000 and 1500 is obviously large.   – Cameroon Trip Participant     

Students were forced to move forward with their engineering design even though they were working with ambiguous information, missing data, and unknown variables.  Students came to recognize they would not have exact numbers for the population being served by their water distribution system or survey data for the entire area they were working in. Quote 14 embraced this insight whereas quote 15 recognizes some limits to the amount of estimation that seemed allowable.  Once they understood the resource constraints they were working with they had to accept a lack of information, some of which was seen as critical to the design.  Students learned to prioritize information collection but often found it difficult to obtain the information they needed or to know which information would be needed in the future.

Working with limited resources

16.  In the village, we actually went through and hand-drew all of the hydraulic grade lines, all the different parts of the system. And the issue with that is that it’s just so time-consuming to rewrite things here. We need to take this there. It’s a lot more work than if you can plug it in the spreadsheet. -Cameroon Trip Participant

17.  Don’t sit around and panic that you don’t have enough data; you don’t have all the variables. You’ve got to start something. That’s something I’ve learned over all my work in EWB. -Guatemala Trip Participant

Students have become accustomed to doing engineering with the assistance of technology, a resource that was not always accessible while on-site.  They had to hand draw maps; compute hydraulic grade lines and other calculations by hand.  Quote 16 discusses the additional effort it takes to map out a hydraulic grade line without the use of a computer.  They did not have access to the Internet or particular textbooks but rather relied on their collective intelligence to recall information.  Finally, students did not have access to cellphones and thus had to plan activities knowing they would not have telecommunication to modify them.  Though students diligently prepare for international trips, it is often inevitable that a resource is needed that was not previously thought of to bring.  This leads way to problem solving and increased confidence in working with limited resources.

The students had limited time on-site and would not be able to get collect all of the data they ideally might require.  They were not able to survey the entire community or get exact measurements for every aspect of their design.  They had to prioritize how they spent their time and where they used their resources but as quote 17 shows, students still recognize the need to get started somewhere and keep the project accelerating even amidst limited resources.