By Erin Peiffer
I first learned about how to use engineering to meet the needs of those oftentimes underrepresented in the world of design in 2014 through my university’s Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service (ETHOS) Learning Center. Before this point, I had questioned whether engineering was the right path for me but discovering the world of Engineering for Global Development (EGD) renewed my passion for this field of work.
Over the last six years, my understanding of the EGD field has changed dramatically thanks to exposure to new ideas and experiences. During the years that I pursued my undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Dayton, I had the opportunity to work on EGD related projects in South Africa and Ghana. While in Durban, South Africa, I interned for the company Rocket Works to test a biomass-powered barn to dry crops more efficiently. Two years after this first experience, I worked for the company Burro in Koforidua, Ghana contributing to research and design ideation for an improved shea nut roaster for female shea butter processors in the northern part of the country. These experiences opened my eyes to the difficulties associated with using biomass for household and productive energy use, the complex contextual and cultural aspects that must be considered for EGD projects, and the importance of meaningful community involvement. These experiences motivated me to pursue my PhD at Oregon State University in the Humanitarian Engineering Lab, where I continue to learn how to positively contribute to this growing and evolving field of study.
Since starting at Oregon State in 2019, my enthusiasm for using engineering to “save the world!” has been grounded in learning about the many, many failures in this space and how technologies and the people involved can inflict more harm than good. Fortunately, through my program I have benefitted from the opportunity to take classes outside of the engineering department, which is critical for working in the EGD space. I was surprised by how much my perspective shifted as a result of taking classes in anthropology. I learned about new qualitative and quantitative methods, as well as the problematic histories of international development and anthropology. These insights have shaped the way I frame and approach my research, which I see to be well-aligned with Lifeline’s mission and values.
Through March 2021, I will be interning for Lifeline with the support of National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF INTERN award allows graduate students to intern for up to 6 months with a non-academic organization for professional development. I first was introduced to Lifeline and the amazing work that they do at the 2018 ETHOS cookstove conference outside of Seattle, Washington, and have continued to learn more about the organization since then. I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to work with such an inspiring organization and continue to expand my understanding of the EGD sector from the practitioner perspective.
Over the course of this 6-month internship with Lifeline I have several objectives I would like to accomplish in terms of both professional development and research. Professionally, I look forward to learning more about the internal operations of NGOs in this sector and the various roles within Lifeline as an organization. I also hope to learn more about the divide between academia and practitioners and how this divide can be bridged.
To advance my PhD research, I am currently focused on understanding and modeling the adoption of technologies and corresponding social impacts experienced by the end-user. To do so, I have several objectives I would like to accomplish in collaboration with Lifeline:
1. Learn more about the contexts in which Lifeline’s cookstoves are marketed and sold, and create user journey maps highlighting critical points at which adoption can be supported.
2. Understand the most important variables influencing the sustained adoption of improved cookstoves for the various contexts using Ethnographic Decision Trees and machine learning.
3. Evaluate how the expert perceived social impacts of cookstoves vary from the user perceived social impacts of cookstoves in various contexts.
4. Assess what conditions are required to bring about social impacts from products and which of these social impacts are most relevant in various contexts through data analysis.
Be on the lookout for future posts where I will take a deep dive on each one of these research objectives!