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Hands-on helping: New center enriches education and outreach

At home and abroad, Buckeye engineers are creating solutions to help people in need and empower sustainable development. Those efforts—ranging from providing access to clean water, food and energy to improving technology capacity for impoverished communities—got a boost this year with the launch of the College of Engineering’s new Humanitarian Engineering Center.

During a recent trip to Colombia, Professor Kevin Passino helped kids build working speakers from paper, wire and magnets.During a recent trip to Colombia, Professor Kevin Passino helped kids build working speakers from paper, wire and magnets.Led by Kevin Passino, professor of electrical and computer engineering, the center aims to educate global humanitarian engineers who can team with communities to create innovative and cost-effective technical solutions to worldwide problems. It will coordinate multiple initiatives, including courses, service projects, the humanitarian engineering minor, the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars program, and study abroad experiences, as well as provide oversight to student humanitarian engineering organizations.

Members also conduct advanced research to develop novel, needs-driven solutions and disseminate those research results widely.

While the center is new, its focus area is not. Humanitarian engineering at Ohio State dates back at least 35 years, when Professor Emeritus Herman Weed involved students in his work to provide engineering and technical support for Project Hope.

Today more than 40 faculty and staff members are involved in the center. They work with hundreds of engineering students, as well as scholars from the social sciences, business and medicine, to complete projects in central Ohio and throughout the world.

“There are a lot of dedicated faculty and staff who give their time—during university breaks and vacations—to tackle these projects,” Passino said. “That, combined with the fantastic level of interest and participation from our engineering students, enables us to have a positive impact in many communities.”

In central Ohio, Buckeye engineers participate in K-12 STEM education and outreach for disadvantaged schools, set up computer hardware and software for a local food pantry, teach senior citizens how to use computers and build wheel chair ramps for the disadvantaged.

Globally, the center has projects in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras, with other activities in South Africa. These international programs focus on a range of engineering projects, including water quality and filtration, alternative means of generating electricity, food production, and technical and STEM education.  

In Colombia, Passino teamed with Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Betty Lise Anderson to launch a new program focused on constructing low-cost engineering experiments for K-12 and university students. In collaboration with three Colombian universities, the team is working to conceptualize and develop low-cost engineering experiments for disadvantaged universities and schools. Next spring, they will travel to Colombia with a group of Ohio State engineering students to conduct the experiments with teachers and school children, and collaborate with their university partners to design the next generation of experiments. 

“These are very disadvantaged universities with real needs. They have almost no engineering laboratories,” said Passino. “We hope to improve technological capacity of the students there, so that they can better solve their country’s problems and get better jobs.”

Buckeye engineers visited Panajachel, Guatemala last summer to make local arrangements for the first Humanitarian Engineering Scholars international service trip. Buckeye engineers visited Panajachel, Guatemala last summer to make local arrangements for the first Humanitarian Engineering Scholars international service trip. Next summer, a group of Buckeye engineers will take the first Humanitarian Engineering Scholars service trip to Guatemala to work on projects that help the local people, including assisting with K-12 STEM education and meeting technical needs for water, energy and sanitation. Passino and four students traveled to Panajachel, on the shores of Lake Atitlán, last summer to make arrangements. There, they partnered with local nonprofit Mayan Families to identify projects of greatest need and impact. 

The trip showed electrical and computer engineering major Mary Scherer the benefit of providing long-term engineering solutions. 

“It’s easy to sign up for a weeklong trip and take it as a cultural experience, but on that trip I saw that these engineering issues don’t go away after a week,” she said. “I was really inspired by trips that are attached to groups who keep following up on projects in the same communities.” 

Scherer also learned about Mayan Families’ need for summer interns. After being selected as a volunteer intern, she returned to Guatemala and spent the summer piloting a STEM education program for preschool students.

“It was really great to go down and see how I can use the specific set of skills that I’m learning as an engineer to help other people,” she said. “Because in engineering we can see a lot of different goals—making a lot of money, inventing the newest smart phone—but it’s also amazing to see that this field has a selfless aspect.”

Scherer’s experience is a good illustration of what the center hopes to accomplish: accelerate the college’s humanitarian engineering initiatives and capitalize on new opportunities. To do so, however, requires support.

“Our most pressing need right now, in terms of funding, is to help these students travel to high-need areas around the world where they can make a difference with their engineering skills,” Passino said.

You too can make an impact at home and abroad by supporting the Humanitarian Engineering Center via go.osu.edu/giveHE.