Questions at the Heart of Engineering for Development

November 21, 2013

By Nora Pillard Reynolds

I grab the handlebar in the back of the pickup truck to steady myself as we jolt along unpaved roads in the mountains of Nicaragua. I listen as my friend and project director, Junior, describes a problem that had arisen in one of the villages where we recently constructed a gravity-based water system. He tells me, “someone is cutting the pipes at night to cut off water supply to the village church and school. They dig up the pipe and slash it with a machete until is cuts off the water to the rest of the village. The community pulls their money together to buy a new pipe and repair the break, but the person just digs it up and cuts the pipe again the next night.”

My first response demonstrates a faulty assumption. I ask, “why is he doing this?” Junior responds, “it’s an old lady”.  We all have a chuckle at my expense! 

An engineering professor and friend of many years, Jordan, suggests,
“why don’t we repair the pipe and then not only bury it, but also cover the area
with cement so she can’t dig it up again?”
I interject (somewhat rudely without waiting for a reply),
“because that is a band aid solution that still does not address WHY…
because if we don’t try to understand why, that same old lady will just go find another
place to dig it up and cut the pipes or another way to break the water system.”

Without missing a beat, Jordan starts laughing as he plays on common assumptions about engineers, “right and that is why engineers don’t run the world!”



Through the work of Water for Waslala and Villanova University’s College of Engineering, Junior, Jordan and I have collaborated for over ten years. Junior is Water for Waslala’s Program Director in Nicaragua, Jordan is the Director of Engineering Service at Villanova, and I am the Vice President of Water for Waslala. Having established both professional and personal relationships over that time, we are able to share our ideas and push each other’s thinking. We often do…we have very different perspectives! This story serves as an example of the importance of cross-disciplinary teams and trusting relationships in this complex work.

In 2003, Father Nelson and Father Cleto, with whom we were working to get Water for Waslala started, came from Waslala to visit us in Philadelphia. They stayed with me at my mom’s house and during the visit we asked to meet with folks from the College of Engineering at Villanova to discuss possible opportunities for collaboration. Ten years later, over 200 engineering students and faculty have visited Waslala through various initiatives, we have all weathered many challenges together, and we continue to make efforts to improve our work and partnership.

Currently I am working on my dissertation, “Is international service-learning win-win?: A case study of an engineering service-learning partnership”, which explores the engineering projects and partnership with the College of Engineering from the perspective of the community partners and community residents in Waslala. In this blog post, I touch on topics and questions I think are important in this work and I hope to share additional findings from my dissertation in subsequent posts. I landed on this dissertation topic at the urging of my colleagues in the College of Engineering who want to better understand the perspective of their community partners. After over ten years of close collaboration, I use the term “we” to describe those of us who are engaged in the College of Engineering and in work that takes us far beyond those walls.


Engineering-for-development[1] initiatives are increasing dramatically in the engineering community. Many universities now work in development projects abroad and run their own programs (for example, Engineering Programs in Community Service) and there are now numerous engineering organizations doing development work such as Engineers without Borders (EWB), Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), and Engineering World Health (EWH). These university programs and engineering-for-development organizations directly involve engineering students, young professionals, and faculty members in international development initiatives and projects on the ground in countries around the world (for example, building a water system).

In engineering education, there has been increasing attention to the importance of providing a more well-rounded engineering education that incorporates the development of both technical AND professional skills (ABET, 2000). Service-learning and global service-learning have surfaced as one of the methods to best teach the professional skills (Shuman, Beterfield, & McGourty, 2005). 

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Criteria

Screenshot 2013-11-21 12.16.25


It’s hard for me to assess what [the community] has gotten out of it.

I guess that’s kind of one of the things I don’t know and am a little uneasy about:  have they gotten what we’d like to say they’ve gotten out of it?

-Dean Gary Gabriele, College of Engineering 

In the case of Water for Waslala’s work in Nicaragua, the university administration and faculty are confident that the university and the students are benefiting from the partnership, but would like to understand more about whether and how the community is benefiting.

There is increasing evidence for positive student outcomes related to engineering service learning experiences. Research finds that project-based service-learning “1) retains students; 2) increases female representation; and 3) offers an opportunity to fulfill a variety of ABET learning outcomes” (Swan, Paterson, & Bielefeldt, 2009, p. 1). Specifically related to the ABET criteria for the technical and professional skills, Carberry et al (2013) found that engineering students attributed 45% of what they learned about technical skills and 62% of what they learned about professional skills to their engineering service experiences.

Like SL and ISL generally, there is limited research on the actual as opposed to assumed or intended benefits to the communities in international engineering service projects (Budny & Gradoville, 2011).  After decades and substantial investment of resources in engineering development projects abroad, there is still a gap between invested resources and “successful, sustained outcomes” (Nieusma & Riley, 2010, p. 33). But, what is success?

George & Shams (2007) define a successful engineering service-learning project as “desirable and sustainable for the partner community” (p. 65) and argue for the inclusion of the perspective of the community recipient in assessment efforts. They propose questions that must be addressed related to whether the customers’ needs have been met and whether the project is sustainable and maintainable by the customer (pp. 67-68). The only way to better understand the community’s needs and satisfaction and whether the project is sustainable is to incorporate the community’s perspective in all phases of planning and assessment and continue to do so over time in a long-term relationship.


Understanding the tormented history of development projects around the globe and the on-going debate about how to end poverty (Sachs, 2005)) and what role development should and can play (Easterly, 2007), it is particularly important that we all challenge ourselves to interrogate our work. In his scathing critique of “developmentalism”, Easterly draws attention to the role of technology in solving poverty. He writes,

These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences, ignoring messy social sciences such as economics, politics, and sociology (Easterly, 2007).

Yes, the world is increasingly interdependent and we, individually and as institutions of higher education, may feel responsibility to do something and move beyond the ivory tower. So, what do we do and how do we do it?

Nieusma & Riley (2010) call attention to risks present in engineering-for-development projects that can serve not only as a cautionary tale, but also as a framework to question and improve our own work. They describe ways in which engineers focus too much on technology, lack awareness of power imbalances in interactions, and ignore larger structural issues. Below I offer just a few of the important considerations for engineers working in development projects:

(1)  Do we focus too much on technology?
(2)  What counts as outcomes?
(3)  Do we just assume that we have built relationships and trust?
(4)  What constitutes participation?
(5)  How do we communicate?
(6)  Who teaches and who learns?

Do we focus too much on technology?

Nieusma & Riley (2010) argue that engineering-for-development projects often focus too heavily on technology at the expense of other important considerations related to power relations, economic policies, and context. They draw attention to non-technical dimensions of projects that are crucial to successful, sustainable projects. To understand context, they argue, requires “investing both time in a community and a systematic effort to learn about it” (p. 48).  How much time and what efforts have we dedicated to understanding the contexts in which we work?

What counts as outcomes?

The focus on technology all too often leads to a narrow definition of outcomes that only includes functional sustainability of projects. To better understand whether a project is successful, we must consider the perspective of the community. How do our community partners and community residents view outcomes of the projects and partnership?

Through interviews with community partners and residents in Nicaragua, I found that the community representatives describe outcomes more broadly than functional project sustainability. For example, when I asked about outcomes from the projects or partnership, multiple community partners talked about awareness of Waslala through their partnership with Villanova.

Referring to horrific historical events that could happen to communities because of isolation (Chiapas, Mexico), one community organization representative’s comment highlights just how important awareness can be for an isolated community. She told me,
the fact that the world knows [us], makes us stronger”.

Do we just assume that we have built relationships and trust?

We often make claims about assumed or intended outcomes without incorporating the community’s perspective. In engineering research and engineering-for-development projects, there is increasing acknowledgement of the importance of relationships, trust, and community participation, which we know are all important for successful, sustainable projects and partnerships. Similar to SL and ISL literature more broadly, there are numerous claims with little input or substantiation from the community’s perspective.

What are the important aspects of relationship building? How is trust created between the multiple stakeholders? What counts as participation? Statements such as “the trust we have built with the community over the past year and a half” (Magoon et al, 2010, p. 62) and “the community gained confidence in EWB” (Ogunyoku et al, 2011, p. 30) both show an awareness of the importance of relationships and trust; however, the community’s perspective is absent. In my full dissertation I further explore questions such as: How can we learn more about the community’s perspective of the relationships? Are we just making assumptions?

What constitutes participation?

Having worked in community-driven development for the past ten years, I can recount many stories that illustrate various stakeholders being on different pages. The story below raises the question: what constitutes participation?

As we sipped our afternoon coffee in Nicaragua, a friend who lives in Waslala and I chatted about a new project. She told me that the project initiator had won a grant to pilot a new technology and had come to her with funding and asked her if she could write up a proposal about potential uses for this new technology. So…she did.
Several months later, I came across a conference proposal describing that same project.

The engineer described how he asked the community partner about what was needed. I was surprised since I knew that the project initiator had already had an idea and come to the community partner only after the idea was in motion.

Does this count as participation? 

Similarly, Nieusma & Riley (2010) highlight the problematic ways that engineering-for-development projects often handle participation. They write,

Community involvement morphed into a narrow form of market research, where students first conducted a community needs survey, then carried out brainstorming and idea evaluation without participation from community members, and returned with a second community survey to elicit feedback on final design concept…community participation was superficial over the entire duration of the project [which] calls into question the priorities of the partners in determining what (and whose) involvement was essential to the project and what (and who) could essentially be left out (p. 39). 

For those of us who facilitate international engineering service experiences, these stories call us to interrogate our assumptions about relationships and trust and when and how real participation happens.

How can we communicate?

Language ability and power imbalances influence and complicate communication. Even when using in-country translators, Nieusma & Riley (2010) acknowledge challenges to communication. They report “some clarity on what was said, but [there was] often disagreement or confusion about what was meant” (Nieusma & Riley, 2010, p. 38).

Language requirements are still often absent in engineering education and often language is not required for participation in international engineering service projects. Nieusma & Riley (2010) warn, “when language is viewed merely as a logistical concern rather than a critical site of power relations, the consequences for process, project, and social justice are likely considerable” (p. 53). We must ask ourselves: what level of language should we require for team members participating, leading, or researching these international engineering service programs?

Who teaches and who learns?

What do a rural farmer in Nicaragua, a schoolchild in Cambodia, a village chief in Panama, and an indigenous medicine man in the Philippines all have in common?

They have all improved the way that [University] engineers understand and see the world.

Those individuals have all helped us to improve engineering education and improve people’s understanding of the impact of engineering in a global context.

So it’s actually the opposite of what most people would expect. I think that’s probably an important distinguishing characteristic of the approach that we take with all of the work that we’re doing.

–Jordan Ermilio, Director of Service, College of Engineering

Recognizing the limited ways that relatively inexperienced engineering students can contribute to development projects, we might want to consider “development training camps” (Nieusma & Riley, 2010, p. 54) or programs where students “act as apprentices to community members” (Riley & Bloomgarden, 2006, p. 57). These ideas formally recognize the knowledge that the community partners and residents have and encourage a two-way transfer of expertise. If we acknowledge how much our engineering students learn through these experiences, we must ask ourselves: do we truly engage our community partners as co-educators throughout the entire process?

[1] There is substantial variation in the terms used to describe this work such as “engineering-for-development, community development engineering, humanitarian engineering, and appropriate technology (Nieusma & Riley, 2010) and the ways in which engineering students are involved (course based service learning, co-curricular service experiences, and extracurricular service experiences) (Carberry et al, 2013).


Nora Pillard Reynolds is the Vice President of Water for Waslala and a PhD Candidate in Urban Education at Temple University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled “Is International Service-Learning Win-Win?: A Case Study of an Engineering Service-Learning Partnership.”


Budny, D. & Gradoville, R. (2011). International Service Learning Design Projects: Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers, Serving the Global Community, and Helping to Meet ABET Criterion. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, 6(2), pp. 97- 117.

Carberry, A., Lee, H., & Swan, C. (2013). Student perceptions of engineering service experiences as a source of learning technical and professional skills. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, 8(1), pp. 1-17.

Easterly, William (2007). The ideology of development. Foreign Policy Magazine. July/ August. Available at:

George, C. & Shams, A. (2007). The challenge of including customer satisfaction into the assessment criteria of overseas service-learning projects. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, 2(2), pp. 64-75.

Magoon, C., Villars, K., Evans, J., Hickey, B., Sayre, A., Tutino, C., Swap, R. (2010). Water supply and treatment design in rural Belize: A participatory approach to engineering action research. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, 5(1), pp. 47-63.

Nieusma, D. & Riley, D. (2010). Designs on development: engineering, globalization, and social justice. Engineering Studies, 2(1), pp. 29-59.

Ogunyoku, T., Nover, D., McKenzie, E., Joshi, G., Fleenor, W. (2011). Point-of-use drinking water treatment in the developing world: Community acceptance, project monitoring and revision. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, 6(1), pp. 14-32.

Sachs, Jeffrey (2005). The end of poverty: The economic possibilities of our time. New York: Penguin Books.

Shuman, L., Besterfield-Sacre, M., McGourty, J. (2005). The ABET “professional skills”- Can they be taught? Can they be assessed? Journal of Engineering Education, January, pp. 41-55.

Swan, C., Paterson, K., Bielefeldt, A. (2009). Panel- Measuring the impacts of project-based service learning in engineering education. Frontiers in Education Conference. pp. 1-2.


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