Humanitarian engineering was her doorway, now it is the key

Engineering Impact

Humanitarian engineering was her doorway, now it is the key
Humanitarian engineering was her doorway, now it is the key

“Engineering is not just putting up bridges or wiring circuits,” explained Louise Bardwell after teaching a hands-on engineering workshop for high school girls visiting The Australian National Univeristy (ANU).

“It is a diverse discipline that, at its core, uses problem-solving to help design solutions for people and to address real-world needs.” 

Bardwell, who received a double degree in Engineering (R&D, Honours) and Arts (Pacific Studies) at a Conferral of Awards ceremony earlier this month, knows from experience that the technical side of engineering can be daunting for young women. 

“They’re more than capable. But there’s this barrier and incorrect perception that they’re not good enough,” she said.

However, once they realise that ultimately engineering is about helping people, it “sparks that excitement,” and gives them the courage and motivation to overcome those barriers.

“We’re trying to reach these schoolgirls at the age of about Year Ten, or so — when they’re trying to decide which subjects to do for their final years,” Bardwell said.  “I didn’t do physics in high school, and so my first year of engineering, I really struggled not having that physics background.” 

Women in engineering mission-critical

During her five years at ANU, Bardwell has become something of an engineering evangelist. And, her gospel has spread well beyond the confines of the sprawling campus by the lake. 

Bardwell has been an active member of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia throughout her undergraduate years, and, for the past two, she has served as president of the ACT chapter. She has volunteered countless hours for EWB’s Youth Outreach Program, which delivers engineering workshops for high school students with the aim of recruiting more girls, First Nations Australians, and lower-income students into engineering, science, and technology.  

One of the workshops tasks young people with designing and testing prosthetic legs.  Another invites them to charge a smartphone using solar energy. A third involves building floating houses - a design challenge with real-life applications in Cambodia due to the flooding there during the monsoon season. 

The workshops are designed to introduce young people to humanitarian engineering concepts such as human-centred design and culturally/socially appropriate technology. 

In June, Bardwell participated in EWB’s 2022 Regioneering (regional engineering) trip to the South Coast in New South Wales, teaching ten such workshops at four different schools, plus one for homeschooling students in the Shoalhaven area.

Bardwell’s motivation in donating her time and expertise runs deeper than simply wanting to offer young people the encouragement and inspiration she wishes she could have had.

“Many of the issues and challenges facing society today - be it climate change, the energy transition, food security, health care and more - have come about due to myopic approaches to problem-solving and design in the past,” Bardwell said.

To engineer a better future, institutions like ANU and EWB need to play a leading role in infusing the global scientific community with new talent and new perspectives. For Bardwell, gender equity and diversity are not goals in and of themselves. Rather, they are mission-critical ingredients for problem-solving, collaboration, and innovation. 

The engineer who nearly wasn’t

Bardwell spent her formative years at Ravenswood School for Girls in Sydney, which prides itself on developing “the whole person through academic, social, emotional and spiritual growth”. 

Her favourite subjects were history and maths. She also loved a class that was mostly about baking. As for sewing? Well, not so much. 

“I hated sewing,” she recalled with a laugh. “I just remember unpicking a lot and hating it.”

At times, her maths and science instructors seemed content to have her aim a bit lower than she would have liked. So, Bardwell advocated for herself. “Oh no, I want to do the highest level of maths, I think I can do it,” she would say.

In Year 11, Bardwell went on an immersive school trip to Cambodia as part of a social justice education program. She enjoyed it, and the experience made an impression.

“I wanted to do something with a positive social impact, but had no clue how I could do that besides something in the humanities space,” she said. “I didn’t know it could be through a technical lens.”  

One day, her father casually mentioned a friend of his who was working as a water engineer. His job was getting clean drinking water to remote communities in third world nations. 

“I just remember thinking, wow that is awesome,” Bardwell said. “And that was enough to convince me to pursue engineering.”

She visited several universities for “Open Day,” with engineering as her primary focus. She chose ANU because she found the other schools to be too traditional. Nearly all of the prospective students were male, and the lecturers seemed to focus on the technical side of problems at the expense of the human side.

By contrast, Open Day events at ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) had more gender diversity and described a nontypical engineering degree.

“They really highlighted their interdisciplinary focus and humanitarian engineering, which at the time [2015] wasn’t really offered at other universities I was considering,” she said. 

Soon after her arrival at CECS, Bardwell sought out Humanitarian Engineering pioneer Dr Jeremy Smith and asked him to supervise her first undergraduate research and development project. “I think I emailed him once and knocked down on his office door and was like, ‘Hi, I’d love to do a project with you,’” Bardwell recalled.

The resulting study investigated reasons for high rates of non-communicable disease in Samoa, pointing to changing dietary patterns that had resulted from loss of traditional agriculture, and suggesting concepts for restoring Samoa’s local produce consumption.

“Louise has been an amazing role model for our students and for anyone motivated to make a positive impact through their knowledge and action,” Smith said. “She has woven all of her studies together, along with her involvement with Engineers Without Borders Australia, to explore the role engineering has on improving human well-being.”

In July 2018, Bardwell went to Samoa as part of EWB Design Summit, which is built into the HumEng curriculum at ANU and hosted by EWB. 

The Design Summit has sent 1200 students to six countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific to “gain insights into best-practice community development, and appreciate the role engineering plays in creating positive change”.

She spent the first week in Apia, the Samoan capital, learning HumEng concepts like appropriate technology, sustainable development, human-centred design. “Then we went to stay in a village with a family and had the opportunity to meet and talk to people to then inspire a project combining our technical engineering skills with a community need.” 

Bardwell said the design summit had the dual purpose of informing her research project.

“It helped me realise some of my ‘solutions’ were completely wrong and wouldn’t align with their way of life,” she said. 

Pandemic threatens HumEng reach, impact

When travel restrictions spurred by the global pandemic forced cancellations of the 2020 and 2021 Design Summits, Bardwell was deeply concerned. “We were going to lose a whole cohort of students,” she said. This would hurt more than their ANU experience; it would influence the rest of their lives and careers.

“It was definitely disappointing,” said Charlotte Fell, who had been greatly looking forward to her experience, which would have been in Cambodia.

Like Bardwell, Fell has been an active member of EWB and she feared the emerging HumEng program at ANU and the ACT chapter of EWB would lose momentum.

Then, Bardwell had an idea.  

“You know what? Why not do it locally?” she thought. “There’s so many design problems and local work that we could be doing here, and probably more so should be doing here.”

She contacted Smith and Fell, as well as Patricia Wang-Zhao, a fourth year mechatronics major who also volunteers at EWB, and Angus Mitchell, a PhD candidate at CECS and an EWB field professional.

“They thought I was a little crazy, but we managed to pull it off,” Bardwell said.

The first ever EWB Local Design Summit was held at Nguurruu Farm in February 2022. Over the course of two days, First Nations Traditional Custodians Dan Ganter and Warren Ganter Saunders shared their knowledge, history, and approach to systems engineering with students and researchers mostly from ANU but also from other universities.

“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. 

The Local Design Summit was an enormous success, so much so that EWB and CECS plan to continue hosting them each year, even as travel restrictions ease.

Renewables are humanitarian, too

Although it was humanitarian engineering that attracted Bardwell to ANU, she was not able to add the new HumEng minor because there wasn’t room in her double degree.

Her second undergraduate research project was supervised by Dr Fiona Beck, a world leader in renewable energy innovation, and looked into how Australia could transition to 100 per cent renewables, with a techno-economic analysis of solar-to-hydrogen energy production. 

Her third, honours research project, supervised by solar-thermal energy expert Dr John Pye, was accepted for presentation at the SolarPACES 2022 conference in the United States, which she looks forward to attending this coming September. 

Did renewable energy steal her heart away from humanitarian engineering?  Not at all.

“I think in fact they kind of support each other,” she said.

“I guess the point is humanitarian engineering isn’t its own discipline. All engineering should be humanitarian engineering because at the end of the day, it’s just saying that engineers are trying to improve the quality of life for all people. All engineers should be doing that.”

Bardwell recently accepted a job as a Research Assistant at the Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program (BSGIP), which is located on the ANU campus. She works on the Neighbourhood Battery project, which aims to encourage homeowners to store excess solar energy generated from their rooftops in batteries large enough to power their communities.

“A lot of what we learn in Humanitarian Engineering is human-centred design and two-way engagement with communities,” Bardwell said. “That’s exactly the sort of local grassroots approach we need when we’re trying to make that energy transition. Technology can’t be implemented, and it can’t be effective, unless we listen to people and get communities on board.”

Bardwell plans to stay in the renewable energy space. She feels that CECS’ commitment to humanitarian engineering and systems engineering, as well the encouragement of double degrees, have served her well.

“If we’re going to improve renewable technology and fight climate change, we need to think about things from all aspects instead of just technical ones,” she said.

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