Engineering students meet virtually to incite real-world change

Posted on September 14, 2020

Engineers can change the world. This isn’t an opinion, but a fact – one reinforced at the August 2020 Canadian iteration of How to Change the World, an international conference series dedicated to connecting, energizing, and motivating engineering students.

With the event moving to a virtual setting, Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science students were solidly represented across five days of activities, networking, mentoring and bonding. The conference was dedicated to “a virtual recovery-focused program[…] helping Canadian communities and economies rebuild better by empowering a crisis-stalled generation.”

Students dug deep into any number of international issues, going as far as cost analysis for ecological brick manufacturing in India, in this segment of a project that included Queen’s student Cora Van Raay. Visit the full project page.

The empowerment was felt from coast to cost, with Queen’s students and staff joining engineering students from across the country to tackle hands-on projects addressing a number of critical issues.

Topics ranged from implementing flywheel technology to help meet energy needs in Inuvik, to addressing ecological issues in Nyoma, Ladakh. Participants created videos, drafted blueprints and diagrams, wrote position statements and reports, and dove into everything from cost analysis to production timelines for their projects.

"My team was responsible for coming up with a solution to the global problem of a lack of access to a source of affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy within the local context of Inuvik, Northwest Territories," said Karina Jorgensen-Fullam, entering her first year at Queen’s Engineering. "Participating in HTCTW was an incredible opportunity because it brought so many people at different stages of their education and career with countless different backgrounds and perspectives together to tackle one big issue."

Cora Van Raay, a second-year Queen’s Engineering student, found the conference invaluable. "It challenged me and helped me learn a lot," she says, "while still working on very interesting and relevant problems that one day I hope to fix."

“It makes me realize the importance of accessibility, says fellow second-year Queen’s Engineering student Qinyu Hou. "Your solution could be technologically perfect, but if your target users are not using them, the project is still a failure. This project really opened my mind as an engineering student."

"Reducing the Use of Kerosene and Dung Cakes in Nyoma," a project involving Queen’s Engineering student Qinyu Hou, used video, diagrams, cost analysis and research into a wide range of energy technologies.

"I had the opportunity to speak and mentor a number of students from Queen’s and other institutions. I was really impressed by the caliber of talent the event had brought together under one virtual roof." says Shahram Yousefi, Associate Dean of Corporate Relations at FEAS. “It was amazing – in session after session, group after group, the same two words kept coming up: ‘intense’ and ‘rewarding.’ All the participants, despite the breadth of projects and the incredible depth of mentoring and growth experiences, shared this impression of an experience that was challenging, but ultimately helped move their perceptions, improve their skills, and expand their networks to become growth-mindset entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs of tomorrow."

The intensity had its own value for Queen’s Engineering students like Hou. "HTCTW helped me to warm up before my school started – second year in engineering will be stressful, so it’s good to have these kinds of experiences before the school year begins." She also found the career-building elements relevant. "This conference also helped me become clearer about my career goals," she says. "I saw more possibilities in myself from my experiences at How to Change the World."

Chelsea Elliott, Director of Corporate Relations at Queen’s FEAS, led a session on networking and how to leverage career expertise at your school. "I connected what the students were learning and networking skills back to how you can apply that at university and to benefit your career," she says. “They were doing wonderful multi-university global challenges, and getting mentorship from impressive leaders. I shared tips on how to have meaningful engineering networking and leverage all the resources back at your university – making the most of internship programs and campus experts."

"There were around 60 mentors to support the students," Yousefi says. “We had a global network of people supporting these students – talking about the challenges they face, and connecting them with new ideas and new opportunities."

In both the project work and the networking opportunities, Elliott says, the process was one that expanded participants’ horizons. "Queen’s Engineering students learn technical design and ideation in class, from Year 1. These projects gave students an opportunity to apply their problem-solving skills. But beyond the projects, they also learned how to network, how to think about your career in a broader way," she says. "Sometimes people will think narrowly about Engineering as 'one thing,' and 'one answer to a problem,' but when you have an opportunity to both solve these kinds of challenges and network while doing it, you find out there are many different approaches, and it's an iterative process. Everybody benefits from it."

Even students not technically in the Engineering program benefited. This year, Queen’s Engineering allowed incoming members of the Class of 2025 to join How to Change the World. "I worried that my lack of engineering and technical experience would leave me with very little to contribute to my group," Jorgensen-Fullam says. "But going through this process proved to be a fantastic learning experience that helped me to develop problem-solving skills beyond simply possessing a foundational knowledge, and has left me feeling far more prepared for first year, the rest of my university education, and my career."

Van Raay agrees. "The experience helped me open my mind and learn about how many different solutions there are to problems and the potential science and engineering has to fix problems, and sometimes even turn the problem into something that helps people," she says.

"The key benefit was the inspiration my participation gave me to fix problems much like these in the future, and come up with unique solutions."