From field placements to school visits, there are many ways engineers can use their skills to change people’s lives for the better.
Unitywater Executive Manager of Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, civil engineer Daniel Lambert, has accomplished a lot with his work in the water industry. But it is his embrace of the human side of his profession that has really seen him make a difference.
From building water supply and sanitation solutions with remote communities in Ecuador to working with the World Bank in Indonesia, Lambert has focused on the transformational impact engineering can have throughout his career.
When asked what advice he would give to engineers wanting to follow in his footsteps, he invokes Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.
“Carpe diem,” he told create. “Seize the day. Suck the marrow out of life.”
That means not being afraid to get the most out of engineering as a career and a profession.
“Some people will travel the world and experience different cultures and work on a range of different types of products and different types of industries or different types of sectors,” he said.
“I’ve loved stepping out of my comfort zone and being in that space — working in the grey. I think where we often grow the most is when we’re taking on new challenges, whether it’s working with a new client or taking on a new leadership role or moving countries or stepping into different spaces.”
When it comes to humanitarian engineering specifically, he says that there are a number of ways an engineer can contribute.
“There are a diverse variety of opportunities for short term or long-term roles, in paid or volunteer capacities,” Lambert said. “I’d encourage everyone to explore those opportunities, whether they see a long-term career in international development or whether they just want to gain some exposure and grow personally and professionally.”
Engineers Without Borders Australia
Lambert recently joined the board of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia, and said there are many ways engineers can get involved.
EWB offers a range of volunteering opportunities, including short-term (three months) and long-term (12 months or more) field placements and pro bono projects through EWB’s corporate partnerships.
It advertises volunteer assignments throughout the year, which are open to Australian and New Zealand citizens or permanent residents. Many of these are in-country assignments and offered in collaboration with the Australian Government’s Australian Volunteer Program.
Engineers Australia member environmental engineer Nicole Locke MIEAust volunteered with EWB in Cambodia in early 2020. While there, she used her eight years of water industry experience to assist the government with its strategic sanitation activities and with research and development into sanitation technology for challenging environments.
“At EWB, volunteering is all about partnering with locals to help them drive positive change for their communities,” she said. “It was described to me as ‘being a sidekick’, which I really like. Change is more effective when it is driven by the people impacted.”
As EWB works in culturally sensitive and complex environments, soft skills, such as being adaptable, proactive and resilient, are just as important as technical knowledge.
Locke’s best advice for would-be volunteers is to “leave your ego at the door”.
“The best solutions are rarely the most impressive or the most flashy,” she said. “Simple is best, because simple is sustainable. It’s better for a small change to stick than a large change to run out of steam.”
Inspiring the next generation
Working in the field isn’t for everyone, but there are volunteering opportunities available for those who would like to stay closer to home. This includes sharing knowledge with the next generation of potential engineers through CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools program.
Through the program, volunteer STEM professionals are paired with a school teacher in need of their expertise. The pair decide what works for them in terms of classroom activities, how often they interact and how to use the volunteer’s specialist knowledge to bring the curriculum to life.
“Some volunteers help with lessons, carry out experiments, do presentations, host virtual workplace visits or share their career journey at career days,” said Susan Burchill, Education and Outreach Program Delivery Manager, CSIRO.
“Some STEM professionals choose to help out purely behind the scenes — supporting teachers to design lessons, or mentoring teachers who want to develop their understanding of STEM subjects and applications.”
The advice Burchill has for potential volunteers is to “be open”.
“STEM professionals are not expected to have teaching experience, the teachers can guide the partnership on how to incorporate expert knowledge into the curriculum,” she said.
“Also consider the idea of volunteering in locations you may not be based in. Thanks to video calls, volunteers can easily help a class, regardless of whether it is five minutes down the road or on the other side of the country. We have a great initiative where volunteers can help schools in regional and remote areas that may not otherwise gain access to such amazing experts.”