Development for the Other 80%: Engineering Hope

By Paterson, K.; Fuchs, V. | Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Development for the Other 80%: Engineering Hope

Paterson, K., Fuchs, V., Australasian Journal of Engineering Education


Multiple problems confront engineering. The world's population is rapidly closing in on seven billion people, among which there are tremendous inequities. Average life expectancy is around 40 years in some countries, more than 80 years in others; average infant mortality ranges from 3 per 1000 in some countries to nearly 300 per 1000 births in others; and average national per capita income ranges from US$500 in the poorest to nearly US$65,000 in the wealthiest. These inequities result in substantial human suffering, diminishing hope and elusive happiness. Engineering solutions must be brought to bear to level these inequities, providing basic human rights to clean water and air, adequate food, education, appropriate housing, and beneficial infrastructure. These rights form the basis of the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN, 2005).

A parallel, yet seemingly disconnected, challenge to engineering is the lack of adequate numbers of engineers who can work in a dynamic global community. In the US, after hitting lows in the late 1990s, engineering enrolments are increasing at the undergraduate and graduate level (Engineering Workforce Commission, 2004). Yet, the increase hides some troubling truths: interest in engineering, as expressed by percent of university students enrolled, is at an all-time low, about 6% of all American university students are engineering majors (Sims, 2004); and yet while engineering enrolments are increasing in numbers due to growing numbers of children in the States, graduate engineering education continues on a 15-year downward trajectory in enrolments of white Americans (National Science Foundation, 2004). In 2000 the number of international students exceeded the number of white Americans studying graduate engineering in the States for the first time ever. On a brighter note, the numbers of women at the graduate level of engineering education continue to rise; women now account for more than 20% of engineering graduate students. Clearly the engineering profession has an image problem.

If engineering is not resonating with students entering college, then what does? A recent national survey showed incoming college students to be most interested in humanitarian issues: education, poverty, environment, health, human rights, disaster relief and hunger topped the list (AMP Insights, 2006). This list provides clues to alleviating the above problems the Millennial Generation wants to make a difference in the world (Gordon, 2007).

Since 1997 Michigan Technological University has created opportunities to engage engineering (and other) students in the solution to problems confronting people who have not historically been well-served by engineering. Over the course of the past decade, six distinct programs have been created to provide multiple opportunities and pathways through undergraduate and graduate education, supplemented by a rich international sustainable development experience. More recently these programs have coalesced into the D80 Center ( This paper highlights the structure and outcomes of this bold initiative.


The D80 Center's mission is to assist the most vulnerable 80% of humanity in meeting their basic needs for food, water, shelter, sanitation, waste disposal, energy, income and education. During their years at Michigan Tech, D80 participants learn to view the challenges and opportunities facing humanity via a multidisciplinary perspective. Through extensive opportunities on campus and in emerging communities, participants acquire the skills, knowledge and confidence necessary to make a positive impact in the lives of the world's most under-served, while becoming leaders in their chosen fields.

2.1 D80 programs

D80 encourages grass-roots development of companion programs by faculty, staff and students. There are currently six programs affiliated in the Center:


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Development for the Other 80%: Engineering Hope


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