By Caldwell C.
I’ve spent three straight years taking traditional engineering classes. You learn the material, they give you problems, and you pick out the information and the formulas to solve it. I was a little tired of that sort of black and white, cut and paste style, so when I saw a class called Engineering for Social Change, I jumped on the opportunity. I hadn’t seen the word “change” in a context other than phase change for a while and I hadn’t seen the word “social” in a class for even longer. To be totally honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I walked into Engineering for social change for the first time, but I at least had hope that it would be different. I was not disappointed.
During the semester, we heard from a variety of speakers on a variety of topics. Our second class, Dr. Grimm gave us his “Philanthropy for Engineers” lecture, which involved us reviewing famous philanthropists and Dr. Grimm pretending to be a homeless man sitting in the middle of the room. I was totally confused, but I was enjoying myself. As the semester progressed, we heard from a student who had started a company that designed cheap lighting for third world countries, a civil engineer working on managing fresh water, and a Microsoft exec that left her high paying job to work on protecting women in India. We heard so many stories and were given a huge amount of information on a huge number subjects, and while I found most of it incredibly interesting, I had no idea why we were hearing all of it. At the same time, we worked on two projects: a $10,000 grant for a non-profit and a design solution for a large problem like food or water accessibility. Again, the projects were interesting, but I didn’t really get why we were doing all these different things and learning all these different things.
It wasn’t until Professor Jungho Kim came in at the end of the semester to give his talk that I finally realized what was going on. He talked to us about the responsibility we had as engineers to be cognizant of unintended effects as technology progressed, and as he cautioned us about our potential, I finally understood the message behind the lectures and the projects. The message was this: that engineering is not just plugging in formulas or building things. It is about thoughtful decision-making. That was it. As engineers our decisions have the potential to have huge effects on how the general public lives and interacts. This means that the decisions we make every day can create social change, and it is our responsibility to ensure that this change is the change we want to see in the world. In essence, responsible engineering is unintentional philanthropy.