Students at the Engineering Without Borders Challenge presentations at Sheffield University.

Students take on international engineering challenge

Students from over ten universities across the UK are taking part in the Engineers Without Borders UK Challenge, applying their engineering skills to issues facing a rural village in India and learning a variety of new skills along the way.

The Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Challenge requires students to use their problem solving and design skills to support the development of the community of Devikulum, located in Tamil Nadu, India. The organisation provides students with background information on the community, the issues it faces and design briefs/ideas to help the community in regards to energy, transport, water supply and waste management needs amongst others. It also provides a live video link to the community.

A flexible concept to suit all courses

A very open idea, the challenge has been designed for university academics to pick up and use as part of their curriculum, the concept flexible enough to fit any type of engineering or design course. For example Sheffield University engineering students are working on a week long project instead of doing a series of exams, aerospace students in Liverpool are working on year long technical projects related to the village and product design engineering students in Glasgow are using the challenge as the base for their individual projects.

Originally a concept from Imperial College London, EWB Australia first trialled the challenge, which has been running there since 2006. This is its first year in the UK and interest has been high.

The challenge’s aim

The aim of the challenge is to show engineering students the more social and development orientated side of engineering and to give them a wider set of skills than what they would gain from a technically focused course. As well as getting to work on real-life engineering problems developing communities face, they will also develop teamwork skills.

“It’s to show them the other things engineers do and to teach some of the softer skills in engineering, make them more rounded,” says Alistair Cook, research and education manager, EWB-UK. “They get to look at different methods that engineering courses don’t usually focus on because they’re usually more technical.”

Gain a wider variety of skills

“It will be a great chance for the students to join together and learn not only about how they can use their skills to improve people's lives, but also to develop the interdisciplinary group working skills that they will need on their courses and also in their future careers,” adds Dr Stephen Beck, from Sheffield University's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"The exercises have been designed to develop a range of skills that will be useful during the week itself, throughout the rest of their degree and in their future employment.

"It is also a key component of the week that students will develop a strong understanding of the social, cultural, global and environmental responsibilities of the professional engineer, and the need for and principles of sustainable development. They could find themselves researching alternative fuel sources for a small community in India, or designing new water and sanitation systems,” he notes.

There’s a competition too!

As well as being a very interesting project to work on as part of their degree courses, students can be put forward to enter the EWB Challenge competition. Universities can choose to enter up to five teams each, with prizes including fully funded placements and training opportunities as well as prizes for the universities themselves.

If found to be a success, plans are afoot to expand the concept in future years. Cook explains that eventually EWB-UK hopes to have several communities for the students to look at helping, as well as giving them the chance to go out to the community and test out their ideas for real.

Future plans – visiting the community

“Next year’s challenge is set in Vietnam and after that, because of the amount of students involved we may have to move to two parallel communities,” he explains. “One will be an the EWB-UK, most likely in East Africa and the other an EWB Australia partner somewhere in Asia.

“Eventually we’d like to take the best students and designs and do further testing in the community they’ve been working with,” he continues. “We’d like to support them in continuing to work with that community through placements and possibly research projects in later years,” he enthuses.

Want to find out more? Head to for all the details of this year’s challenge.

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