Engineering Student Makes the System Work

Volunteer job brings buyers and sellers together

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Emily Nickerson sized

Engineering is all about systems. That’s from fourth-year water resources engineering student Emily Nickerson. As president of the campus club Engineers Without Borders (EWB), her focus is on applying those systems and engineering theories in unexpected ways and unexpected locations.

Take last summer. Nickerson spent four months in Uganda as part of an EWB junior fellowship program called the Agricultural Value Chains Venture. The system she was working with consisted of rural farmers who needed seeds and vendors in town who were selling seeds.

Somehow, though, the connections weren’t working. The farmers had a hard time getting into the city where the vendors’ shops were located. Even worse, some vendors in more rural locations were selling fake seeds that didn’t grow into the desired crops.

Nickerson helped the vendor design a system that worked. With her support, he created a network of local seed distributors who collected bulk orders from groups of farmers. He also guaranteed the quality and reliability of the seeds he sold.

“Our goal as volunteers is to help create a system that is sustainable, one that will keep going after we’re gone,” says Nickerson.

The U of G club is connected to Engineers Without Borders Canada but operates independently in terms of finances and event-planning. The club also selects applicants for programs like the one Nickerson attended; one person is chosen each year. That volunteer completes four months of training before heading off for four more months overseas.

Besides offering this volunteer experience, the campus club works on advocacy around related issues. As Nickerson explains, Engineers Without Borders Canada is focused on finding ways to eradicate poverty in Africa. “Our student clubs also have a goal of changing engineering curricula to have broader scopes,” she says. This year, the club’s advocacy efforts are directed at mining companies, urging them to adopt policies that will prevent harm to local economies and natural resources in developing countries.

The EWB Guelph members are also involved in outreach programs in local high schools, providing presentations on issues such as food and water security. “We make it very interactive and discuss the differences between water issues in Canada and in other parts of the world,” she says. “We want to get students interested in the complexity of problems that are often approached in simple ways.” The club has also partnered with other groups organizing programs about similar topics.

Although the club is called Engineers Without Borders, Nickerson says many of its members are not engineering students. “It’s about solving problems using systems thinking, and anyone can use those skills; they are important in many areas. It’s also the idea of the design process and taking an idea to completion,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘I’m in engineering’ or ‘I’m in arts’ and stay in our own areas, but, in fact, we all have a lot in common. And there are many benefits to working together and building on each other’s strengths.”

For Nickerson, her summer of work in Uganda was a revelation. “It was wonderful. I stayed with a host family, and as soon as I walked into their home, they made me feel welcome. They were so warm and friendly,” she adds. “The business owner I worked with was just the same; his smile could light up the room. It is very stimulating to work with someone who is so passionate and driven and really wants to make improvements that will help both him and the farmers.”

The experience also highlighted for Nickerson the importance of connecting with the people she works with. “Any engineering system is designed to work for a community,” she says. “If you don’t understand the community or the client and what is really needed, the system won’t work the way it should, or it will soon break down. It is important to have community-driven designs that can be sustained by the system or community for which they are designed.”