Engineers use skills and know-how for good causes

Engineers use skills and know-how for good causes
(From left) Engineers Without Borders Asia president Hannah Leong and fellow volunteers Goh Ann Tat, Sivagamasundari and Aaron Yeo dismantling a toy to study how they can modify it for use by special-needs children, at the Singapore University of Technology and Design on 7 August 2014.

Engineers here are using their skills for good, whether it's modifying toys' power buttons so disabled children find them easier to push, or cleaning up a Sri Lankan lake.

One such group is Engineers Without Borders Asia, where engineers apply their skills to service projects. The volunteer group will be launched this Saturday.

In Singapore, it will provide assistive technology support, such as modifying toys for local voluntary welfare organisations so special-needs children can use them more easily, said founder Hannah Leong, a 28-year-old research assistant at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). EWB-Asia will also teach children's caregivers how to modify toys on their own.

And with seed funding from a multinational engineering firm here, it will send a volunteer to work with Cambodian social enterprise Ecosun for six months, to design solar-panel systems.

Asked why she started the group, Ms Leong said it offers more specialised volunteer opportunities than the typical "painting a wall or teaching English".

"I wanted engineers to be able to use their skills," she said.

The group, which currently has about 15 members, aims to recruit more and start chapters at local universities.

A separate group called Engineers Without Borders Singapore is already the local chapter of global organisation Engineers Without Borders International. (EWB-Asia is not affiliated with the international organisation.)

It started in 2013 and so far has one potential project, a plan to rebuild a school in Bohol, the Philippines, damaged by a 2012 typhoon, said founder Mr Ng Saye Phin, 36, a project manager.

Professionals have for years been using their skills to help make lives better: surgical missions such as Operation Smile provide cleft-lip repair and other services, while homegrown Conjunct Consulting offers consulting services to voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs).

But in the past few years, new programmes have started and existing ones have evolved, mainly at universities and polytechnics.

At Singapore Polytechnic (SP), a 21-year-old SP Cares scheme that started out modifying wheelchairs, walkers and rehabilitation devices for VWOs has evolved over the years.

"Previously, VWOs came to us and we provided solutions. Now, we try to understand why the client has those needs," said SP chief technology officer Lance Lim.

Similarly, the SUTD's Opportunities Lab applies design and engineering to social change. At MacPherson, it turned a carpark into a recreational park for a day, demonstrating what safer streets and community spaces can do for health and mobility.

And in 2010, Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) started its Lien Environmental Fellowship scheme with funding from the Lien Foundation, hosting developing-world researchers to come up with Water and sanitation programmes.

For instance, NEWRI helped survey and clean up a polluted lake in Kandy, a popular tourist destination in Sri Lanka, by installing water plants that clean the lake and getting respected religious leaders to speak out against pollution.

This article was first published on August 11, 2014.
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