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Engineering a better life for those in need

Scholarships empower students to take their skills from the classroom to the community through the Humanitarian Engineering Center.

Engineers are known for creating solutions to society’s challenges. But what about when those challenges are basic human needs, like access to clean water, sanitation and electricity? That’s where humanitarian engineering comes in.

Established in 2014, the Humanitarian Engineering Center (HEC) is an interdisciplinary effort that partners with various colleges and organizations across campus and around the globe. Whether it’s a service learning project in Columbus or fieldwork abroad, Buckeyes are engineering a better life for those in need.

From the classroom to the community

Mary Scherer ('17) and Andy Koch ('18) are two of the Engineers for Community Service (ECOS) members who help build wheelchair ramps for needy residents, including this one in south Columbus.

For Mary Scherer, a senior electrical and computer engineering major, the call to service came fairly early in life. “My father always told me, ... ‘if you want to save the world, become an engineer.’”

Once she got involved with the HEC, she quickly realized just how much of an impact she could make. She joined Engineers for Community Service (ECOS) and the Tech4Community project (T4C), giving her valuable hands-on experience and the opportunity to take her engineering knowledge beyond the classroom. Now president of ECOS, Scherer and her peers have initiated several community service projects, from building wheelchair ramps for those in need to offering free technical support to local retirees.

“Our program is an exchange with the community. We provide them with designs, devices and information, and they provide us with real-world learning experiences that will make us better engineers,” she said.

Scherer is grateful for the positive impact she can make on the community, but she’s also appreciative of what others have done to help her pursue her dreams. When she was 15, her father passed away after a four-year battle with brain cancer. Her mother returned to work, but having two children in college at the time soon became a heavy financial burden.

“Merit-based and need-based scholarships through the College of Engineering allowed both my sister and brother to graduate from Ohio State with their electrical engineering degrees without a crippling amount of debt,” explained Scherer. “I have one year remaining before graduating college debt-free. Scholarships have meant an enormous amount to my family.”

Scherer’s experience with HEC has helped her discover her passion within engineering. She plans to remain involved with the center after graduation and hopes to give back to the programs that have taught her so much.

“ECOS and T4C are always in need of donations of funds or materials for projects such as wheelchair ramps, bike design and many more,” she said. “When I donate, I’ll know exactly where my donation is going and how it’s directly helping my local or international community.”

A global engineering experience

In May 2016, Jessica Shuman and 14 fellow Buckeye engineers took their passion for humanitarian engineering global as part of the Engineering and Culture in India program. Partially funded by donor support, the trip is one of approximately 10 international outreach projects the HEC coordinates each year.

During spring break, the students traveled to the northern cities of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi where they were exposed to the country’s rich history, culture and engineering concepts.

While in India, Buckeye engineers met with a group of women who are involved with Barefoot College, which works to empower women in impoverished rural communities through training and sustainable solutions, such as solar power and clean water.

For Shuman, a junior mechanical engineering student, the main draw was seeing Indian engineering in action, which was on full display during a tour of the hospital and fabrication facility of the Jaipur Foot—a low-cost, simple prosthetic.

“I was really interested in the prosthetic feet because I’m thinking about a career in prosthetics,” Shuman said. “They differ from American prosthetics, so it was really cool to see how they made it workable for their culture.”

She noted that the waterproof prosthetic supports key daily activities like squatting and bicycling. And because it looks like an actual foot and can be worn without shoes, amputees can wear the device into temples of worship without scrutiny.

Structured as a one-credit hour class, the trip also exposed students to a service learning project with Barefoot College. Located in the rural village of Tilonia, Barefoot works to empower women in impoverished rural communities through training and sustainable solutions, such as solar power and clean water.

Without the financial assistance she received from the Peter L. and Clara M. Scott Scholarship, which provides full tuition, Shuman said the awesome experience likely wouldn’t have been possible.

“Having the opportunity [to go to India] because someone wants to support you—it’s awesome. I’m just really grateful to be able to do all these things,” she said. “It’s not an experience everyone gets to have.”

Through donor support, the Humanitarian Engineering Center can provide global learning opportunities to more students and accelerate its impact at home and abroad.

This story was originally published in Forward, the College of Engineering's giving impact report. Read more giving stories and the full report online.