University of Pittsburgh

Future Perfect

What connects a fish farm in Mali with artificial organs, green buildings, nuclear power, and safer highways? Just ask Pitt engineering students. The University’s Swanson School of Engineering is transforming its curriculum, its programs, and even its physical space to help engineers-in-the-making improve the planet’s future.

Written by Sharon Guynup

U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering Gerald Holder

U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering Gerald Holder

It’s the heart of Mali’s dry season.

Four undergraduate students bounce around inside a battered VW van with seven other travelers. In 115-degree heat, the driver follows a barely visible “road,” crossing a segment of Africa’s flat Sahel region. One of the van’s doors won’t stay shut, so the rider next to it has the job of holding the door closed on the long, dusty journey. After a hot, gut-tumbling eight hours traveling from the capital of Bamako over an arid plain, the van finally reaches its destination, a remote village in central Mali.

Most of the villagers here in Makili are subsistence farmers, trying to grow rice and millet, eking out a living in one of the world’s poorest nations. The bare, scrubby landscape is dotted with mud-brick, thatch, and corrugated tin houses. The dry season lasts six or seven months, a time when the shallow wells begin to disappear without any guarantee of replenishment. Drinking, washing, cooking, crop irrigation—life itself—all depend on a steady supply of water, something that is especially fragile in this part of the world.

The just-arrived University of Pittsburgh students have traveled thousands of miles to see whether they can help. Using their Pitt-acquired engineering skills, they will partner with the Makilians to boost the village’s year-round water and food supplies. The students—engineering majors Emma Baillargeon, Mike Bozek, and Victoria Kennedy, along with physics major Jeff Fein—are part of the Pittsburgh chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that matches students with professionals to construct infrastructure in developing countries. The students are accompanied by three mentors who are Pittsburgh-area civil engineers.

A few years ago, the residents of Makili learned that a neighboring village had begun to develop a sustainable fish farm. Brilliant idea! The Makilians dug their own pond, but the water continued to dry up from evaporation and ground absorption. So they turned to a local Peace Corps worker, who contacted EWB headquarters to find skilled volunteers who might be able to help. Before long, the Pitt team arrived, ready to survey land, assess the site, and design a sustainable pond.

It turns out that building a fish farm in Mali requires virtually the same skills and approaches demanded by the broader field of engineering today. These include the need for multiple partnerships, new or unlikely collaborations, global communications, cultural sensitivity, access to the right tools, and planning that accounts for resources, energy use, costs, sustainability, and security.

For several years, Pitt’s John A. Swanson School of Engineer-ing has been re-envisioning its programs, classrooms, and curricula to better equip its students to grapple with the world’s toughest problems.

The future of engineering is not sitting in an office alone, says Harvey Borovetz, distinguished professor and chair of Pitt’s bioengineering department in the Swanson School. “Your laptop is your office,” he says. “You can collaborate with coworkers on any continent or in any city. Everything is changing as the world becomes more tightly connected.”

The Swanson School has revamped its curriculum in many areas to prepare students to lead engineering innovation over the next decades. The current curriculum offers more opportunities for students to work in teams and participate in cross-disciplinary research, mirroring the world they will work in when they graduate. New state-of-the-art classrooms, part of the innovative Albert G. Holzman Learning Center, are designed to encourage interactive, collaborative learning with multiple, interconnected computers on a shared desktop. The school also has embarked on a $100 million “transformation plan” that will further renovate Benedum Hall in preparation for a new era of problem solving.

One major goal is to make sure that students are prepared to compete in an international environment, says Gerald D. Holder, the Swanson School’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering. Last year, 35 percent of graduating engineering students had worked or studied abroad in countries as diverse as Brazil, Germany, Vietnam, India, and Mali. That global experience is becoming essential in the education of engineers, especially those eager to solve truly daunting problems.

The National Academy of Engineer-ing recently assembled a diverse group of experts to identify “the grand challenges in engineering” for this century. Their report ( notes, “Foremost among those challenges are those that must be met to ensure the future itself.”

The report’s priorities range from developing economical solar power,  securing cyberspace, and engineering better medicines to creating energy from fusion, restoring urban infrastructures, ensuring access to clean water, and preventing nuclear terror.

The complex nature of these challenges requires the brainpower of multidisciplinary teams, working together in locations scattered across the globe. The solutions will result from novel approaches, new tools, and creative people—in other words, the world needs engineering innovation and plenty of it.

Pitt’s bioengineers, for instance, are working closely with both materials engineers and with physicians from the School of Medicine and the medical center to create advanced devices and techniques. Borovetz—who also is the Robert L. Hardesty Professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery—and others are designing and building mechanical devices to aid faulty or failing organs. Additional teams are creating new biomaterials, including a form of bioscaffolding to support the growth of new tissue and even, possibly, replacement organs.

To support and broaden these kinds of innovations, the Swanson School has created new programs and certificates in areas like bioengineering, electrical power and energy, construction management, and green construction. There is a keen and growing awareness of the need to make new things possible with less environmental impact and lower resource use.

“Until recently, it wasn’t part of an engineer’s ken to consider sustainability,” says Dean Holder. “Now, engineers must consider the entire life cycle of their design: What resources and materials will be used, the manufacture and use of that structure or device, and what happens to it when its useful life is over.”

New initiatives are training Pitt students in this area, including a green entrepreneurship course on sustainable products and clean technology design.  “Growing interest in green engineering and bioengineering reflects a trend among students to want to be part of something that benefits society,” says Dean Holder.

The Swanson School’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation is dedicated to conducting research and developing approaches and products that will have a positive, enduring impact on the environment and quality of life. Here, students are working on projects to convert traditional buildings to green technology, to develop sustainable water resources, and to design environmentally friendly power sources.

Other areas where students are devoting their attention are in the electric power and energy fields because of increasing national and global energy needs and the growing specter of climate change. Areas of focus at the Swanson School’s Center for Energy include renewable energy resources, energy efficiency and reliability, advanced materials for energy applications, and power system technology development.

“It’s going to take responsible integration of existing and new technologies to tap new forms of energy resources, become sound environmental stewards, and comply with coming legislation and policies that will require less CO2 emissions,” says Gregory Reed, a professor in electrical and computer engineering who also directs the Swanson School’s Power & Energy Initiative.

Another focus is on modernizing the half-century-old U.S. electrical grid, which was not engineered to handle the current population or its energy needs. A 1950s household did not contain a microwave, two computers, video games, three TVs, cell phones, a dishwasher, multiple air conditioners, or a multitude of other electronic gadgets. Projections show that U.S. energy needs will continue to skyrocket for at least the next half-century.

According to Reed, the aging grid needs to transport ever-greater amounts of energy from inland generators to population centers that are often perched on faraway coastlines. It’s a problem that could make blackouts more common, if not properly developed. Another obstacle is that the current system is not tooled for renewables. Pitt researchers in the Power & Energy Initiative are looking at how to engineer a “smart” grid able to better manage power systems and store energy from “episodic” sources that are productive only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

“We need to strategically integrate all forms of energy resources to establish a balance of economics, reliability, and sustainability,” says Reed. “This includes everything from renewables to clean coal  to nuclear. We also need better ways to store, deliver, and use energy.”

Amidst this great need for innovation, a crisis is brewing in the U.S. energy industry, says Don Shields, codirector of the Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence. Over the past decades, the industry reduced recruiting and research, and it now faces a huge retirement wave. The average age of technology and engineering workers is about 55 years old, and nearly half of that workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years.

To meet this need, the Swanson School developed certificate programs in electric power, mining, and nuclear engineering. “We need to fill the pipeline with new engineers,” says Shields. “But this also means that these students will face big responsibilities very early in their careers—and we’re trying to make sure they’re ready for it.”

Changing world demographics are creating challenges for engineers. By 2150, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities, and much of that population will be clustered along coastlines. Already, 25 megacities across the globe are home to at least 10 million inhabitants, straining the infrastructure.

Crumbling bridges, highways, sewage treatment plants, and other deteriorating public works pose an impending crisis, says Shields. More housing, more cars, and more people are straining systems that were built in the 1950s. Though they have been minimally maintained, most were never updated.

The challenge is how to make these structures safe—and how to make them smarter. Shields notes that there are fewer sensors and computing capabilities in a multimillion dollar bridge than there are in his car. Students in a new Pitt transportation engineering master’s program are learning how to design, maintain, and manage the highway system using novel paradigms, with new pavement materials and embedded sensors that monitor traffic flow and sense where maintenance is needed.

Today’s engineers working in the new global landscape must be equipped with skills that fall far outside traditional technical parameters. Students must embrace globalization and diversity. They must be able to manage change—along with a project’s cost. They must be able to work with policy makers, to employ leadership skills, and to communicate well with everyone involved.

Pitt is addressing these issues in myriad ways, including broadened requirements that include more humanities, social sciences and business courses, and a co-op requirement that gives students work experience. “We are working to educate the next generation and prepare them in a way that is modern and relevant, and we are doing it with strong industry collaboration,” says Reed.

On some fronts, this generation’s engineers are already leading the way. They are hungry to make a difference. In response to growing student involvement in programs like Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and Engineers for a Sustainable World, Pitt will launch a new certificate program next year in Engineering for Humanity, requiring involvement in a service project.

For several years now, Swanson School students have embraced the concept of engineering for humanity.  Emma Baillargeon, one of the Pitt students who traveled to Makili last summer, joined EWB in spring 2007 and became the chapter’s president in 2008. From the start, she has been part of the Pittsburgh effort to help the village create a durable fish-farming pond.

When the students returned from  Mali last summer, they used their site assessment data to draft a pond design that would sustain year-round use. Afterward, with input from Makili residents, the students discovered that the initial pond design wouldn’t work—the downpours during the rainy season would likely flood the pond and, possibly, the village. Now—a year after the reconnaisance trip and consultations with Mali’s Ministry of Fish, Rotary International, REFOR (an organization that has built other fish farms), a local Peace Corps representative, and others—Pitt’s EWB members are refining the pond design to account for the region’s extreme seasons. Baillargeon is returning to Makili this spring to help gather data on the local watershed, ground slope, and rainfall. In addition to adjusting the pond’s design, chapter members will evaluate the need for a reservoir to regulate the pond’s depth.

A bioengineering major, Baillargeon also worked on health assessments and quality-of-life surveys related to the pond’s impact on the village. The full scope of the fish-farm project includes educating the local population about rainwater harvesting techniques, aquaculture practices and maintenance, and financial management of resources.

Baillargeon, who completed her Pitt bioengineering degree this spring, says that her trips to Mali were among her most valuable college experiences. “I got into engineering because I wanted to help other people,” she says. But the reality is even more moving than she’d imagined. “You meet a community, you see their needs, and you can’t let them down. It’s not an option.”