Women in Engineering: Engineering for Change

To mark this year’s International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), we are showcasing the achievements of a range of women in engineering. The theme of this year’s INWED is how women engineers ‘Shape the World’, and we will hear from students, staff and alumni who are doing just that.

We spoke to Mary, Lottie, Katherine, Elena and Antigoni of Engineering for Change (E4C), a student society based in the School of Engineering which finds engineering solutions to diverse environmental and socio-economic challenges. Each year the society works on a range of projects, from wind turbines and aquaponics, to recycling and bike-powered cinema, for the benefit of communities here in Edinburgh and further afield in Peru and Cambodia.

Our interviewees were recently elected as project leaders, and provided us with insight into what their projects are currently working on and what they hope to achieve in the next year.

A wind turbine for the local community

Winds of Change was set up by E4C to build a 1 kW wind turbine to supply free, green energy to an Edinburgh-based charity. Project leaders Elena Silverstein and Antigoni Chatzidaki explained, “We work with a homelessness charity, Cyrenians, to find communities that they support who need clean energy. We are currently designing our wind turbine for an organic farm to provide heat to keep their vegetables warm in the poly-tunnel through winter. The farm also provides shelter and optional work on the farm for those without homes.”

The team have recently completed simulations of the turbine, commenced initial manufacturing and located a site for the turbine, and are now looking forward to their goals for 2020/21. “Our plan for the coming year is to finish building the turbine and then test it. Our new goal for next year is to build a flat-pack turbine that would be used for educational and outreach purposes”, Elena said.

The project was originally set up by Mary Lopez-Ferreiro, who commented: “To date Winds of Change has engaged many young students at Edinburgh with the logistics of tackling small wind turbine design, and raised awareness for wind power industry within our E4C community.”

Aquaponics in Edinburgh and Cambodia

E4C has harnessed aquaponics – a sustainable farming method that uses recycled water to grow plants and fish in a balanced eco-system – in Edinburgh and Cambodia. Lottie Edge, project leader of the team’s Edinburgh-based activities, explained “Aquaponics is efficient in land use, reduces the need of fertilisers and recycles the water in the system.”

Over the last two years the project has built an aquaponics system from scratch before installing and maintaining it in a community garden in Edinburgh city centre. Describing progress to date, Lottie said, “Plants have already filled the grow beds of the system and trout were added to the fish tank just a few months ago. The system is working well and is a huge achievement for the project!”

The Aquaponics Project also works with Project Cambodia, another project in E4C, to train members before they travel to Cambodia to work on the same aquaponic systems. “We provide practical experience for students going out to the Sen Sok Community where they build systems for families in rural villages”, explained Lottie. “The aquaponic systems built in Cambodia help to improve nutritional health, secure financial independence and enhances women’s empowerment within society.”

Clean water for communities in Peru

Project Peru works with local NGO EcoSwell to install a much-needed sustainable water sanitation system for the community of Lobitos in northern Peru. The area has suffered a collapse of municipal sewage systems and faces widespread untreated domestic wastewater spills.

The project’s leader Katherine Larabi explained: “24 out of the 28 current wastewater plants in Lobitos don’t meet hygiene and safety standards and wastewater isn’t treated properly.” This poses huge health risks for vulnerable local populations and pollutes surrounding land and ecosystems.

The project draws on an ingenious solution found in nature. “We will be working with EcoSwell to design and build Vetiver Pontoons, which consist of the Vetiver plant, whose roots are able to absorb toxins, chloroforms and bacteria, planted on floating pods”, said Katherine.

Engineering positive change

As these projects show, E4C provides its members with opportunities to make a positive difference by finding engineering solutions to some of society’s key sustainability challenges. Their projects might involve community development, health, nutrition, ecology, energy, and education, among other areas – and demonstrate the key role that engineers can play in creating positive and sustainable change for societies everywhere.

Katherine reflected, “Engineers are a definitely a crucial element in the chain of change, because our role is to design and build the structures of tomorrow. For example, the Winds of Change project wouldn’t be possible without the mechanical engineers of the team. I’d also like to add that the process of change will only work if engineers work hand in hand with professionals from very different disciplines, as we don’t have all the tools needed to make the change.”

Elena added, “Engineers have such a great opportunity and responsibility to change the world for the better. It's so positive that we have societies like E4C to meet other engineers and scientists who also want to build for a better tomorrow.”

Alongside these projects, the society also runs social meetups and bike-powered cinema evenings, and career and networking events for those interested in working in sustainability.

Why join E4C? 

Our interviewees summed up what they enjoy and gain most from being part of E4C.

“Engineering for Change is an opportunity for students - not only engineering students, we have members coming from various kinds of fields - to get involved in projects aiming to help communities. To try and make a change for the better is the vocation of many students, including myself, and E4C is a way to do this before even finishing our degrees.”

~ Katherine

“Professional engineers have a responsibility to seek out sustainable solutions for problems faced by society, and being part of E4C is a brilliant way for undergraduates to begin to understand how best to manage that responsibility. Meeting and working with eager young like-minded students is certainly the best thing about being involved with E4C!”

~ Mary

“I have had the opportunity to participate in different events and attend talks hosted by E4C, to see different aspects of engineering and talk with engineering professionals. Also, through the projects of E4C I got hands-on building experience. But, most importantly, E4C allowed me to meet people that we share interests and exchange ideas with them.”

~ Antigoni

“By being involved in E4C you can genuinely make a difference! The projects that they run really do benefit society and the groups move forward and get things done. E4C offers so many opportunities for students wanting to make a change, whether that’s in Edinburgh or abroad. Personally, I like how hands-on and practical the projects can be. Joining E4C is a huge learning opportunity and also massively enjoyable. It’s a change from just learning in a lecture hall.”

~ Lottie

“For me, becoming an engineer has been about using the tools I learn in class to benefit society and the planet at this much needed point in history. E4C has been a very enjoyable way of doing that through building our wind turbine but also meeting like-minded students and professionals. The students in E4C have very different interests and future goals in sustainability that has completely broadened my understanding of possible routes within engineering and diversifies the knowledge brought to the table when we design together. E4C has a higher percentage of female members than my own course, so it's really nice to work with more women on these engineering projects too.”

~ Elena

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