Engineers ignore conventional borders

A group of University of Calgary engineering students will soon spread technology skills to the underprivileged. Inspired by the Scala Program at McGill University, U of C’s Engineers Without Borders hopes to send two volunteer instructors and 40 computers to the Philippines in summer 2004.

“Development work is a multi-disciplinary process,” explained U of C Scala Program Leader and civil engineering student Jared Houston. “Engineers Without Borders understands this isn’t something that can be solved on engineering principles alone.”

In its third year and phase, Scala’s national goal is to establish six ICT training and resource centres, in addition to the four existing centres, to reach 1,000 underprivileged Filipinos a year. In the first two phases of the program Scala has sent eight volunteers and 45 computers to the Philippines, establishing four pilot ICT training centres in conjunction with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Scala hopes to ensure the resource centers become sustainable and self-replicable which requires more than just engineering skills. Houston and U of C EWB Chapter President and Civil Engineering student David Damberger will require help from students in all faculties to accomplish their goals.

“It’s not just for engineers–we want to reach outside the engineering faculty,” said Damberger. “We’re doing real projects and people get excited about that.”

Damberger hopes the program’s drive for a diverse group of students will attract participants from all faculties, emphasizing the potential for career-related experience in areas such as international relations, project management and development studies, among others.

Volunteers will secure computers and funding from philanthropic companies and individual donors. They will be trained in Calgary to educate underprivileged students and community groups about technology in preparation for work in the Philippines.

“People have this idea that development work is going on a plane to dig a ditch for some guy in Africa,” said Houston. “What we need is people to do the work here, first. We need volunteers as advisors, to approach companies for fundraising, to do bake sales and a lot of logistical work in Canada before we can get there. We want to get people the experiences and contacts in industry. We want them to feel involved in the whole scope of the project.”

In exchange for their efforts, Houston says participants in the program will gain experience in organizing development work and in networking with industry. Participants may also view the world differently in light of their experiences.

“This isn’t a one-way street,” said Damberger. “We get this broader perspective and it will teach Canadians how to do better development work and lead more sustainable lives here.”

To get this far, the U of C group competed against 20 other universities in a bidding process to see who would send volunteers to the Philippines. Earlier this month, EWB chapters at the U of C, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and McGill University all successfully bid to send volunteers this year. To accomplish their bid objectives, Scala and EWB solicited support from across campus.

“Our dean is extremely supportive of us,” said Houston. “We have a ton of engineering profs who want to get involved with us. They’ve seen the success of Dr. [David] Irvine-Halliday and his work with Light Up the World.”

Houston cites many opportunities for students and faculty in areas outside engineering to get involved in the effort.

“We’re still young as a club,” said Houston. “We haven’t had the opportunity to branch out to profs in other faculties. We really want and really need these faculties involved and we’re excited to get them involved.”

Damberger says his involvement in the project has taken his education beyond his civil engineering program.

“I started this three years ago as a student club, working without any experience with development work, trying to lead people at the same time as learning with them,” said Damberger, who participated in development work in India last year. “It changed my outlook on so many aspects of my life.”

“This project has really changed my perspective on development work,” agreed Houston.

To maximize their effect on the underprivileged in the Philippines, Houston says the ICT resource centres will train individuals to leverage their new technical skills to improve their lives.

“There’s a lot more to this development work than IT skills. We teach the Filipinos how to use them as life skills,” said Houston. “There are a lot of out-of-school youth who have withdrawn from education to help their families. With these technology skills, they can increase their economic situation to get jobs that will support both their education and their families. These skills are useful life-management skills–that’s really important.”

Houston invites students and academics from all faculties to join EWB and Scala in their efforts and emphasizes EWB is not just for engineers. In addition to helping Filipinos, the project may also raise the profile of engineers on campus.

“Engineers are not some people off in the corner. That’s the taboo about engineers in universities anyway,” said Houston. “We want to break down the traditional view of engineers as being narrow-minded people.”

Scala will hold its project kickoff meeting on Wed., Nov. 5 in ST 147.

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