A Shift in the Goals of Engineering to Include Improving Social Outcomes May Be Helping Bring More Women Into The Field

Caroline Cheney’s interesting article “A new kind of development professional: The development engineer” describes changing curriculum at some of the top Engineering schools where they are bringing together business, design, behavioral economics and different engineers to rethink approaches to some of the big social problems facing our world.  A new name is emerging “Development Engineering.”

As an example, Cheney points to an interesting solution to a potential health poverty trap that we discuss in the Microfinance class, access to clean water. Key to understanding the solution is thinking more clearly about what access means.

The project,  mentioned both in the article and in Banerjee and Duflo’s excellent book Poverty Economics, was very successful in finding ways to provide  access to clean water, but also in getting people to actually change behavior and use it. While selling chlorine tablets or gallons jugs of chlorinated water in markets did mean the targeted population had access, take up, i.e., actual use of this chlorinated water was low. Instead, the project tried providing access through locating chlorine tablet dispensers at the well site. This greatly increased take up. But, while behavioral economists may have figured this part out,  it was only when engineers got  involved to help with design that it all came together.

Recognizing the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, some universities are introducing new curricula to bring different modes of thought together. And apparently, this emphasis on social problems is not only providing innovative new responses by engaging engineers of various types, but is helping with another problem discussed at the national scale, the lack of women in the STEM fields.

As Lina Nilsson, innovation director for the Blum Center, was quoted in the New York Times: “The key to increasing the number of female engineers … may be about reframing the goals of engineering research and curriculums to be more relevant to societal needs.”

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