Female student works to make fuel briquettes

Members of the Green Briq venture, a Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program venture, work with locals in Kisumu, Kenya, to create fuel briquettes from dried hyacinth, an invasive plant species found in the waters of East Africa.


By Courtney Allen

Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Through its unique opportunities focused on social entrepreneurship and humanitarian technology development, the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program attracts a diverse group of Penn State students wanting to inspire change. Together, these students help to solve problems using technology-based sustainable approaches that impact millions of lives around the world. 

Recent research conducted by the program finds that diversity among HESE’s engineering students is also growing, with more than half being female students. This statistic, coupled with the program’s focus on cultivating multi-semester leadership growth, has led to most HESE ventures transiting to being women-led or co-lead. 

Daniela Staicu, HESE’s visiting Fulbright scholar studying leadership in social ventures, said this approach was established as a result of a HESE study developed as part of her Fulbright research, including “guided student reflections on the process of achieving their goals in the HESE program.” Among other research areas, Staicu studied women who transitioned from a team member position to a leadership role and how this change led to more effective team results and personal development opportunities for the women involved. 

“In the fall, we gathered input from all 49 students taking the first HESE course [ENGR 451] and we were able to implement changes right away, in the spring course [EDSGN 452/453],” she said. “This led to an environment even more conducive to successful, diverse teaming. I think that when we say, ‘we should appoint more female leaders,’ we have to give data as to why. Not just because they are women, but because the research shows it actually works for the benefit of the ventures.”

Amanda Bailey, a senior chemical engineering student, said this is one of the most unique components of HESE. 

“It shows that not only are we developing more leadership skills, but we’re also developing management skills [through collaborative, interdisciplinary teams],” said Bailey. “We’re also fostering that as an opportunity for women to get more into leadership. That’s something unique that allows for building women leaders and giving women opportunity which other classes might not.” 

HESE’s diversity allows for fluidity in projects, explained Jack Iffert, a civil engineering student.

“When we think about HESE, and the social and political value, each of us as problem solvers will bring a perspective. Having a diverse range of people is productive. It’s not just five civil engineers; it’s all different people who are able to provide their expertise in the area they’re most comfortable with, which makes a more holistic product,” he said.

Iffert said that while working on a semester-long project, his teammates ranged from engineering and architecture students to international affairs majors. Thanks to his team’s diverse background, Iffert was able to grow his blueprint skillset with help from an architecture student teammate. 

“I was able to put things in a visual marketplace and I learned a lot about applying a blueprint to real life. Good ideas are not limited to technical expertise,” he explained. “Sometimes engineers put all their ideas in a box, and that’s tunnel vision. So, you’re able to be pushed out of that box, and out of the limitations we [engineers] create, ultimately limiting our creativity.”

Staicu explained why she thinks HESE is more popular among women engineering students.

“They are eager to be in this program because they get to develop technology to impact communities that are disenfranchised. The social role is very important to them,” she said. “They are interested in acquiring skills that are related to business, an area where they may have less of a background. It’s about an interest in making the transition from the traditional role of engineer to a modern role where they have business skills to develop a technology-business model with care for the people and the environment at the same time.”

As a technology development program predominately composed of female students, HESE differs greatly from the traditionally male-dominated field of engineering, generating curiosity about what makes HESE more attractive to women. 

“Research shows that it is the impact of the program. I think that students, and particularly millennials, are becoming more empathetic. Empathy is the foundation of our program and what we are seeing in the HESE classes,” said John Gershenson, director of HESE and research professor. 

Because a specific goal of HESE is to create innovative change within developing communities, students are placed in teams where they actively work to frame and solve issues in these communities. Students explained that it is HESE’s team structure that contributes to its appeal and success. 

Without this team structure, Bailey described how she would not have been able to reach her goals as easily, notably being named the first runner-up of the Joelle Award for Women in Engineering Leadership. This award aims to highlight female students who are brandishing a path of leadership and service and who provide a positive environment for women within the College of Engineering. 

“I think I wouldn’t have even been close to achieving it [Joelle Award runner-up] without my HESE experience. I think with HESE it's so important to encourage women, and the best way HESE does that is working in groups. We don’t exclude,” she said. 

Daniel Kats, a biomedical engineering major who has worked on HESE projects in Kenya, said being on diverse teams makes working on the  ventures much more real.

“This is real stuff with real people. You don’t just forget about it when the semester ends,” he said. “This is a significant part of our life. We see the change we are making and it’s more satisfying than just writing a report.”

Lucy Spicer, a biomedical and mechanical engineering double-major sophomore, said the environment of equity in HESE is what helps establish its uniqueness.  

“HESE is one of those programs that is so different from everything else in the College of Engineering. It has the deeply rooted technical aspects, but you get to see the business, supply chain and other fields as well,” she said. 

When explaining the humanitarian aspects of HESE, Gershenson explained that it wasn’t simply that women were more interested in impact, but perhaps that women were “ahead of the game.”

After hearing about HESE at a Women in Engineering Program, Kayli Rentzel, mechanical engineering student, said she instantly became interested in inspiring change and impacting millions.

“I thought it was cool that we weren't making a hypothetical business; this is going to produce something,” she said. “Yeah, we’re students, but we are making a difference. It's more worthwhile to work on something that will change the world.”