Senior Research Fellow at the Sustainable Minerals Institute of The University of Queensland
Making engineering more inclusive and appealing
I research complex sustainability challenges at the interface of energy and mining. I also designed and run an innovative undergraduate engineering course to help make engineering more gender inclusive and appealing.
Poverty, climate disasters, and wars are the defining features of our times. To address these complex challenges, we require more engineers than ever before. We also need to nurture engineering minds that are socially innovative and resourceful. Conventional engineering education is necessary but insufficient. The next generation of engineers needs to be better aware of the social context within which modern engineering problems are situated. This requires additional skills in engagement, communication, ethics, and cultural sensitivity.
If we do this, we can cultivate well-rounded engineers and make engineering as a study choice more appealing for female students.
The course ‘Introduction to Humanitarian Engineering’, the first-of-its-kind in Queensland, which I recently introduced at UQ, is a step in that direction.
There is an evident shortage of experienced engineers across Australia. Complex global problems increasingly require engineers to exhibit the six Engineering Habits of Mind, namely: Systems thinking, Adapting, Problem-finding, Creative problem solving, Visualising, and Improving.
The current generation of young engineering students is keen to embed these Habits within their engineering education to make a greater impact at a societal level. To cultivate their full potential, however, engineering educators need to recalibrate the curriculum and their approach. As a community, we need to ensure that engineering graduates have an evolved, holistic understanding of the world in which modern problems are located. They also need a ‘backpack-for-life’ of skills and competencies that enables them to work creatively with other disciplines to find and address messy and wicked problems.
The Humanitarian Engineering course, first introduced at UQ in 2020, empowers students to do that – to think broadly whilst engaging with modern challenges. At the heart of the course is its purpose to provide students with tools and frameworks that foster curiosity and innovation. By bringing diverse perspectives on multifaceted problems, the course encourages students to be lifelong learners whose contributions have sustained societal benefits.
The course content is wide-ranging: from discussing the role of engineers in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Federal Government’s Close The Gap Initiative to developing human-centred design solutions for energy, water and livelihoods challenges facing remote Indigenous communities across Queensland, and globally.
The course brings experts from the Queensland Chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and from all around Queensland. These guests share evidence-based ‘real-life’ cases that push students to think creatively about their approach to problem-finding, and solving, but importantly, to step back and consider the underlying societal context that shapes engineering problems.
To my knowledge, this is the only course of its kind currently offered in Queensland. The personal and professional attributes that this course upskills young Queensland graduates with, not only make them world-class ‘global’ engineers but promise to deliver a pipeline of resilient, adaptive, and creative future leaders and thinkers for Queensland.
Delivering this course at the state’s top university is significant: it enables a wider conversation on engineering pedagogy and provides the impetus to engage both across and within universities to consider the future of engineering education in Queensland. Driven by the successful reception of this course, the University of Queensland’s Academic Board recently approved a Minor in ‘Engineering for Sustainable Development’ – again, a first for the state – that will further enhance the inclusive appeal of engineering studies, especially amongst female Queenslanders.
My ultimate hope is that this course can inspire educators across Queensland – both at primary/ high schools and universities – to highlight the power of engineering in solving pressing global challenges. This will, in turn, help bring more female prospective students into the boundless field of STEM and create leaders that are representative of a modern, thriving Queensland.
To young women and girls, my career choices are a testament to the fact that engineering is not career-limiting. I was trained as an engineer but subsequently decided to cross disciplinary boundaries and undertake a PhD in social sciences. This giant leap involved a Master of Science degree in environmental engineering and sustainable infrastructure as a conduit between disciplines. The M.Sc. broadened my horizon and piqued my curiosity for the ‘unknown’.
Training as an engineer helped me on many fronts: it enabled me to develop strong analytical skills and an intrinsic passion for curiosity, both of which continue to serve me well in my current job as an interdisciplinary researcher. It instilled in me many of the Engineering Habits of Mind, long before I formally came across the framework. It provided me with a foundation that has held me strong and passionate about the work I have done over the last twelve years.
Contemporary problems are complex and can rarely be addressed with a singular disciplinary focus. I didn’t necessarily appreciate this at the time of crossing disciplinary boundaries – I was uncertain, and therefore, under-confident. The lack of suitable role models at the time who were successfully leaping across disciplinary silos provoked my self-doubt. However, I can only be grateful today. Training in engineering, and then retraining in social sciences put me in a niche group of experts who appreciate, and are comfortable navigating, diverse disciplinary languages, and nuances. This positions me favourably in interdisciplinary teams tackling global challenges such as energy poverty, climate change adaptation, and energy transitions – three areas I have worked on and published in over the past decade.
I strongly believe positive role models can impress young minds, and in many ways, shift thinking about what may be ‘possible’! I represent all those women and young girls who are hesitant about STEM and uncertain of potentially ‘locking in’ to future career options. To them, my advice is to follow their passion and explore the vastness of the world of STEM.
I am also a woman from a Culturally And Linguistically Diverse (CALD) background, now raising a young family in Brisbane. I have first-hand experience with many of the challenges that continue to influence how girls and women navigate personal and professional growth opportunities. Having lived and studied on three continents has informed my ability to be adaptive, resilient, and open to new cultures and experiences, whilst retaining my values of integrity, and empathy.
As an active researcher, I have had the good fortune of advising female PhD students from diverse geographies and disciplinary backgrounds and mentoring several others in their early career stages. I draw on my own experiences and attributes to lead myself and others in making a positive impact and contributing to a supportive community of purpose-driven women in STEM.
I believe that my career choices underpinned by a broad disciplinary span and lived experiences of a global education provide hope and belief for Queensland’s girls and women to follow their passion and seek an inspired career in STEM.
I have actively participated in a variety of STEM engagement and promotion events organised at UQ, at local Brisbane primary schools, as well as internationally.
At UQ, I was invited to participate in the inaugural 12-part podcast series ‘But…Seriously, what is engineering?’ curated by the Women in Engineering team for prospective high school students, their parents, and teachers. The podcast series was designed to tell inspirational stories and educate and encourage prospective female students to pursue a career in engineering.
The Humanitarian Engineering course was introduced to the wider public through this podcast and was one of the most downloaded podcasts within the series.
I have appeared in several episodes of a UQ co-produced TV program telecast on SBS Food to present UQ’s cutting-edge research on the role of clean energy in delivering positive social outcomes in India. This research showcase prompted significant interest in energy poverty amongst scientific and non-scientific audiences both domestically and internationally.
I have also engaged with a local primary school and a local Queensland charity organisation to bring greater attention to the issue of energy poverty amongst young Queenslanders. Energy poverty is the lack of clean, reliable, and affordable energy access for electricity and/or cooking. Together, we liaised with the school leadership to raise awareness about the idea of energy, reliable energy, and sources of electricity among primary school students. They were able to get hands-on experience in putting together solar lighting solutions for disadvantaged kids living in energy-poor regions of Papua New Guinea. This was rewarding for students, the parent community, but also educators in opening young minds to the power of STEM.
To celebrate the 2023 International Women’s Day at UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, I was one of 12 female academics featured for my research on climate and energy and the contribution of the Humanitarian Engineering course in fostering a more inclusive engineering education culture.
As part of my day job, I am the primary advisor for three female PhD candidates and mentor several others who are early-stage researchers. Several of these projects are in STEM fields, from energy and water security in remote Indigenous communities of northern Chile to energy transitions in India. I support the practice of sustained mentorship by bringing young females into my networks and leadership circles.
I am also an academic mentor to undergraduate students who are part of the UQ Climate and Energy Club. I am currently mentoring students to adapt or design a new policy that will help Australia achieve its net zero target by 2050.
I believe in the power of science communication and take pride in using my passion for energy, climate, and development to open frank conversations across all levels of education: from primary and high schools through to universities, here in Queensland and internationally.
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