Charli Fell, winner of the 2022 Natasha Linard Scholarship for Women in Engineering and Technology, has promised to dedicate half of its funds to the continuation of a Local Design Summit that will benefit the ACT’s Indigenous and engineering communities.
Fell was a principal organiser of the inaugural Local Design Summit, which took place over the course of a week in February 2022. It offered engineering students the opportunity to learn about Indigenous agriculture at Nguurruu Farm, followed by workshops focused on addressing design challenges in land regeneration and in the native grains industry.
Seventy per cent of the participants were women and Fell argued successfully in her scholarship application that a continuation of the Local Design Summit would offer a doorway for women who might not otherwise enter the engineering field.
“Women often are taught the narrative of men being better at STEM while women are better at humanities,” Fell said. “So, many young girls who would have made fantastic engineers are discouraged and lose confidence in their abilities.”
Humanitarian engineering, she said, “actively encourages inclusivity and diversity and is therefore much more inviting for women, particularly those driven by a sense of social responsibility”.
You’re helping people as an engineer?!
A 4th year student on her way to a Bachelor of Engineering (honours) and a Bachelor of Asian Studies, Fell had originally been accepted to the ANU College of Law.
“I had it in my head that, if I wanted to give back to society, I had to be a human rights lawyer,” she said.
Her outlook changed, however, during a gap year stint as a volunteer teacher in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There, she encountered a fellow Australian working for Engineers Without Borders (EWB). She learned from him about how EWB was collaborating with remote communities on engineering designs for things like clean drinking water and renewable energy and remarked, “Wait, you’re helping people as an engineer?”
She immediately began gathering information about the engineering program at ANU. She read about Dr Jeremy Smith, who had devoted his career to an approach to engineering that engages remote communities in co-designing solutions to local problems. Since coming to the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS), Smith had launched the first dedicated later-year Humanitarian Engineering elective in Australia. And he was, at the time, in the process of inducting the initial cohort for Australia’s first Humanitarian Engineering minor.
Fell scrapped her plans to enter the legal profession and reapplied to the ANU, this time at the College of Engineering & Computer Science (CECS). She was accepted again, and during her first opportunity to take a course taught by Smith, she helped design a trailer with a portable power generator capable of bringing renewable energy to remote communities. “I loved it so much that I’m back as a tutor of it this year,” she said.
Within weeks of arriving in Canberra, Fell had joined the ACT chapter of EWB and been chosen for its leadership team. Over the past three years, she has been participating in an EWB Schools Outreach program that delivers engineering workshops to high school and late primary students with the express aim of recruiting more girls, First Nations Australians, and lower-income students into engineering, science, and technology.
Fell’s 2018 visit to Cambodia had been a life-changing event, and she was looking forward to returning to the country as part of the Humanitarian Design Summit in 2020.
The summit is hosted by EWB in partnership with ANU and other universities. It has sent 1200 students to six countries, including Cambodia, to “gain insights into best-practice community development, and appreciate the role engineering plays in creating positive change”.
Fell heard rave reviews from fellow Humanitarin Engineering students who had gone in previous years, but the global pandemic has forced cancellations of the program for 2020 and 2021.
“It was definitely disappointing,” said Fell, who had been planning to participate in the Design Summit and then undertake a three-month internship with EWB in Cambodia. She was also planning to take advantage of a prestigious New Colombo Plan Scholarship to study in Taiwan.
She was not only disappointed for herself; “The Design Summit used to be a pretty important way for students to find out about humanitarian Engineering and engage with human-centred engineering, and cultural competency, and all of those things that are very important in a discipline like this,” she said.
Then, a fellow EWB member and recent CECS graduate, Louise Bardwell, came to her with an idea.
Why not do a Design Summit here in Australia? “We have our First Nations people here,” Fell remembers thinking. “We know that engineering has let down First Nations people time and time again.”
Bardell also recruited Angus Mitchell, a PhD candidate at CECS and an EWB field professional, as well as Patricia Wang-Zhao, a fourth year mechatronics major who also volunteers at EWB. Smith agreed to help them organise it, and ultimately served as a facilitator. Fell expressed gratitude to Smith as well as Clare Idriss and Katie Ross of EWB, and CECS PhD candidate Anna Cain for bringing it all together on short notice.
“It was all about learning from First Nations engineering and technologies and it was a great success,” Fell said. “All of our participants really enjoyed it.”
On the first day of the Summit, Ngunnawal Elder Wally Bell performed the Welcome to Country. On day two, First Nations Traditional Custodians Dan Ganter and Warren Ganter Saunders shared their knowledge, history, and systems engineering with participants at Nguurruu Farm.
“Our design project was ultimately looking at this challenge in native grains where we have a growing industry but not really the growing technologies and adaptations to meet the demand,” Fell said.
One of the goals that emerged from the engineering “hackathon” that followed was making sure that profits and autonomy stayed in the hands of First Nations people.
“These workshops, I find, disproportionately interest females because if you look at humanitarian engineering we outnumber men significantly,” Fell said.
She wrote that she wants to use the scholarship money to help ensure that the 2023 Local Design Summit can a window of opportunity without a financial barrier.
Her own journey began with a desire to give back to society, but without the notion that engineering could be a way to do so. She feels that, if institutions like the ANU and EWB can offer more opportunities to learn about humanitarian engineering, science and innovation, humanity will benefit from contributions from a larger talent pool with more diverse and broader perspectives.
Thanks to a chance meeting in Cambodia, Fell has found herself right in the middle of all that, and she is convinced that this is where she belongs.