The gap between the student and the world

This is a guest post written by Virginia Alonso, an engineering student at University College London. She is also involved in Students for a Whole New Education, a network of student advocates for Big Beacon. 

“Engineering schools often fail to provide students with knowledge or understanding of the challenges faced by those outside of the developed world. Medical students and public-health professionals sometimes study or do internships in places where the disease burden is high; but a minuscule number of similar opportunities are available to engineers and technologists. As a result, talented scientists and engineers are often grossly unaware of problems that need to be solved, and even those that might be motivated to do so are unlikely to apply their training to address new and emerging threats.” [1]

I agree with this, and so do many of my engineering friends which whom I’ve shared this passage. In short, this appears to me as a good first step towards thinking about how we can tackle future challenges, some of which don’t even exist today. It appears to me too, that currently we are not doing enough (or we’re doing it wrong) to align the next generation of engineers’ awareness of and abilities to tackle uprising more global challenges. William Easterly has long criticised “authoritarian development” [2], which considers poverty the result of a shortage of expertise, arguing that it has failed consistently over the past 50 years. While Easterly advances the case that freedom must be at the heart of the fight against poverty and criticises the current approach of “parachuting catch-all solutions that take no account of local conditions”, I prefer to see the solution as lying within how we educate and encourage future experts. In international development, it seems to me political decisions are often engineering decisions and vice versa (for example, constructing of a large-scale hydroelectric power plant in the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border [3]; or improving Cameroon’s national infrastructure [4]). If policy makers and engineers don’t speak each other’s (technical) language, or if their perspectives are simply very different, when addressing an engineering-based development programme they may fail to constructively overlap each other’s disciplines and perspectives. Last year, I took Environmental Physics and Environmental Economics at University. When learning about climate change, Professors from each class (from the Physics and Economics departments, respectively) only seemed to agree in one thing: scientists and economics have inherently different and conflicting perspectives and methods, and therefore in real life applications, it often happens that one group of experts tends to mute the other. Understanding real-life dynamics (something I’m still humbly unaware of) I believe comes from hands-on experience in real-world environments. My opinion is thus, instead of having so much criticism about current international organisations, governments and the development sector at large, let us begin by critically questioning the education and worldview with which students, future policy makers and engineers, come out of Higher education and into the real world. In light of this, I invite everyone to read Muhammad H. Zaman’s words [1], and take a minute to digest them.

[1] Whole article here: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ebola-health-care-innovation-by-muhammad-h–zaman-2014-12
[2] Concept put forward in Easterly’s “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor”.
[3] http://www.akdn.org/publications/2014_bashor_case_study.pdf
[4] http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/fileadmin/uploads/aeo/2014/PDF/CN_Long_EN/Cameroun_EN.pdf

 

About the Guest Blogger

virginialonso
Virginia is finishing her studies in London, majoring in Civil Engineering and minoring in International Affairs and Chinese. Her work experience spans four countries and three continents, across a number of sectors: civil engineering, renewable energy, education, philanthropy and international development. She speaks fluent English, Spanish, Mandarin, French and Italian, and enjoys the most a good book, a good conversation and people-watching.

For more information, please visit her personal blog virginialonso.com