Engineering: an endeavor beyond hard skills

SONIA KRISHNA / COURTESY

Engineers Without Borders, global impact of engineers, senior design project

On the UC Davis campus, engineers are employing communications and various interdisciplinary skills to be successful.

Engineers Without Borders is a student organization similar to the concept of Doctors Without Borders. The main idea is that the tools of science can transcend man-made borders, as people work to help other members in global communities who are in need.

The UC Davis chapter of EWB currently has parallel projects running in three countries: Peru, Bolivia and Indonesia. Most of the projects pertain to issues of water and water systems, such as building eco-latrines and implementing a completely new water system.

“Our goal at the end of the day is to help these communities get more clean water, more plentiful amounts of water and [to] really just appease the needs of their community,” said Sonia Krishna, a fourth-year electrical engineering major and the president of EWB. “We are more of a technical needs club; we don’t really tend to mix with the social but we do have to be prepared for that too. When I went to Peru for example, there were some clashes with different communities and we had to be prepared.”

EWB strives to allow undergraduates to delve into real-world projects abroad, network with different companies and develop some soft skills. It gives them the chance to go beyond the classroom academics and be able to perceive the breadth of the application of their technical knowledge.

“When I came in, I was a little bit overwhelmed like any freshman would be,” Krishna said. “I didn’t know anything about application of skills. [But] my personal experience is that this club isn’t just about introduction to these skills, it’s about empowering you to use these skills.”

These projects don’t have immediate gratification, Krishna said. Unlike the satisfaction of conducting a successful surgery, these sorts of projects span about five years and are very large scale.

“We spend so much time [on these projects], and it seems like a quick fix, but being able to work through these problems […] it’s a phenomenal experience,” Krishna said.

Tanisha Potnis, a third-year mechanical engineering major, is the project lead for EWB’s Indonesia project. Potnis provided more insight into the genesis and implementation of the project, and the nuances it encompasses. These projects require multiple trips to the country they are based in and the collection of very comprehensive data.

“The project has three trips: assessment, implementation [and] monitoring/evaluation,” Potnis said. “We just completed our assessment trip this past summer. It’s usually about two weeks long, and we collected everything from soil data, water data, elevation data and data on the community — their opinions, satisfaction with the current system and what they’d like to see improved.”

In addition to providing a platform for developing technical and soft skills, the travelling involved in the projects, according to Krishna, is a learning experience in and of itself.

“It was a really good experience for me, because it was not only humbling to live in a place where people were so generous with so little, but I [also] never realized how much we can do as students, and how much power we have,” Krishna said. “Every engineer in my trip was a different major. We had biomedical, electrical, civil, mechanical — so working with all these different majors was phenomenal because we all had something to offer. We all kind of learned to communicate not only with each other but also with the community.”

But all engineering students, regardless of whether they are in EWB, are required to apply their skills before graduation through the senior design project.

“Senior design— it’s basically an organized internship,” said Krishna Basude, a fourth-year mechanical and biomedical engineering double major. “Companies apply to be part of the program, they put forward a project and we decide what we want to do. [But] my team decided that we wanted to do something a little bit different. We wanted to do something that could possibly continue [and] get patented.”

Basude and his team are working on a project related to musculoskeletal mechanisms involved with overuse injuries in athletes and others who undergo physical exertion. The team is trying to help customers predict when they’re going to face an injury. Using the example of running, Basude explained how overuse injury occurs when muscles grow increasingly tired, and may eventually “snap” like a rubber band stretched beyond its limits.

“If you’ve been lazy up to this point, [this is] forcing you to do an internship,” Basude said. “And if you do it well, typically it can have an impact on your future job prospects. It’s a real life thing. There have been students that have come out with patents and written some provisional patents.”

Part of Basude’s project is finding ways to quantify muscle fatigue, and in an effort to develop a user-friendly device, Basude and his team are sending out surveys to patients and clinicians to learn more about how to cater their device to people’s needs. In the survey, they are presenting different facets of the device, such as accuracy, price, set-up time, portability and asking for patient and clinician opinions on the matter in order to cater to their needs.

“Oftentimes we try to make a product before identifying and catering to a specific need,” Basude said. “The problem is, you can’t have form before function. You can’t design something and try to make it work. You have to find a need, and design something very much based on that need.”

Basude’s team is taking on business and engineering roles by conducting their own market research, effectively demonstrating the interdisciplinary nature of an engineer’s career.

“Being an engineer, especially if you want to design a product, you have to be a businessman in some sense — at least in those initial stages,” Basude said. “There’s a lot of market research that goes into this. The current state of the art is really important, [which is] what people are doing right now. What you really want to make sure is that you’re better than them.”

Engineers are tasked with more than just solving physics problems. They are tasked with taking those skills and applying them to real-life situations, while keeping in mind the sociocultural framework within which they are trying to work.

 

Written by: Sahiti Vemula — features@theaggie.org