In a quiet corner office on the western end of Loma Hall’s second floor, Industrial Systems and Engineering Assistant Professor Truc Ngo folds her hands contemplatively as she reflects on her position at the forefront of USD’s efforts to build a better world.
“You know, I’ve always had an inclination to find solutions to problems, and I’ve been that way ever since my childhood,” she explains. “This idea of using the discipline of engineering to help those less fortunate is not a new one, but it doesn’t make it any less exciting or gratifying to be working with students and faculty who have a heart for helping.”
Ngo has been a driving force behind the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering’s efforts to educate students on the principles of humanitarian engineering, which, by definition, is research and design to directly improve the well-being of marginalized and underserved communities around the world. It’s an undertaking near-and-dear to Ngo’s heart, and she’s excited about the creative projects her students are developing in the name of compassion.
“I was born in Vietnam, which had and has its own share of problems as a developing country,” she says. “This idea of humanitarian engineering — using our research and skill-sets to help underserved communities — is something I’ve always been interested in. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I’m here at USD.”
Charged with creating an elective engineering course that would connect students with the real-world problems facing marginalized populations, Ngo developed Introduction to Sustainability, a class that was first introduced in 2013. Not sure of how students would respond to a course of study where service and conceptual innovation shared equal billing with nuts-and-bolts scientific research, Ngo was floored when the course filled within a week — and had a waiting list that seemed to grow by the hour.
“I thought it might be well-received, but I didn’t think it would be that popular!” she enthuses. “It shows what I think we all knew; our students are well aware of the problems in the world, and they want to help solve them.”
As both an educator and researcher, Ngo is always looking for ways to connect her students with real-world problems prevalent in developing countries — even if that means stepping outside of her comfort zone. Early last year, she traveled to the township of El Cercado in the southern Dominican Republic, a rural community plagued for decades by water contamination issues.
Struck by the region’s pervasive poverty, Ngo realized this was exactly the kind of scenario her course was designed for. “Lecturing in a classroom is one thing, but being on the ground and experiencing these issues firsthand is quite another,” she says. “I talk to my students all the time about getting out there in the world and applying what they’ve learned; it was time for me to follow suit.”
After meeting with residents to discuss what their primary needs were, Ngo developed a plan to install chlorinators for water distribution, and to build basic cooking stoves to help protect villagers from the ravages of disease brought on by consuming spoiled and improperly prepared food. She returned to the community last month with a host of USD students eager and willing to help execute her plan.
“Last year, we had a relatively small group; and by small, I mean two students. This year, we had 21 travel with us!” Ngo proclaims, beaming. “I think it says a lot about our students’ commitment to using their education to help those less fortunate, which is exactly what humanitarian engineering is all about.”
— Mike Sauer, USD Magazine, Spring 2015