Conversations: Olson and Tangorra on Peace Engineering

“Conversations” features faculty members addressing topical, occasionally polemical issues from an engineering perspective.

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This month, we focus on peacebuilding as Drexel University’s College of Engineering introduces the nation’s first MS degree in Peace Engineering.

This 48-credit academic program is open to students with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics backgrounds. It combines face-to-face and online courses with experiential learning and research development projects driven by conflict experts.

Program Co-Directors Dr. Mira Olson, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE), and Dr. James Tangorra, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics (MEM), talk about how the new master’s degree uses the technical skills engineers have gained as undergraduates to enable solution-driven approaches to community and global challenges.

Define Peace Engineering.

Simply put, Peace Engineering is the application of science, engineering, and technology to promote and support peace. The goals of Peace Engineering are to prevent, mitigate, and recover from violence and to develop sustainable social and technological systems for community well-being.

Our pedagogy will position Peace Engineering as a branch of engineering tasked with the reduction of violence and the promotion of conflict resolution at every level, from workplace to community to country. The MS program offers integrated coursework, seminars, experiential learning, and fieldwork that fosters a conflict-sensitive approach for those in the STEM fields. It was created in collaboration with PeaceTech Lab, an NGO headquartered in Washington, D.C.

We’re also offering a three-course certificate in Peace Engineering. The certificate is designed for anyone interested in learning about peacebuilding and the application of systems engineering. It has been created for students in the applied or social sciences, or for anyone who has appropriate work experience.

How did Peace Engineering take hold at Drexel?

The idea came from the National Academy of Engineers and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) around 2007 through the founder of Engineers Without Borders, Bernard Amadei, who was a friend and colleague of Joe Hughes, (distinguished university professor, CAEE). When it was first proposed, there were certain elements the Academy and USIP wanted in a university. It was a new model so they didn’t want a school with a long-developed peace curriculum. And it had to have proximity to Washington and New York. You start mixing all these requisites together and there are only a handful of schools that could fill that need. Drexel was the perfect fit.

By the fall of 2017, we said, “Let’s test the waters, let’s teach a class.” USIP had on-line courses, so we reorganized them and gave them an engineering flavor and then we started to offer special topics in peace engineering. The students loved them. The courses filled up very quickly, and it took off from there.

Why peace-building skills for engineers?

Looking at the way we do conflict and diplomacy, we recognize that many of the causes of conflict have to do with underlying infrastructure resources—access to water, access to sanitation, access to food, taking resources from people without doing it in a manner that allows them to share in the wealth. So many of the sources of problems have a human-needs assessment.

You can’t do diplomacy well—you can’t do peacebuilding well—unless you’re going to address the fundamental needs of people. But you can start using some of the analytical approaches that are common in engineering: sensing, data, systems analysis. Underlying our program is the philosophy of looking at a conflict not as a problem between two regions or organizations, but arising out of social and technological systems interacting with each other.

In terms of its impact on a society, we define peace as not necessarily being peaceful. A society that is at peace is one that resolves its conflicts non-violently and that has healthy social processes. How do we get a society to be able to address conflict non-violently? In order to get there, a lot of these systems have to work well.

Engineering firms, the state department, branches of the military—they are all finding themselves in conflict regions and they’re rebuilding, but they’re not prepared for it. So engineers get involved and have to learn very quickly, with very little training, how to apply what they know to challenging situations. And it doesn’t always go well. These are longstanding problems that involve gender, religion, communications, history. You must have a mindset that recognizes that all these elements have to fit. There needs to be a communication with good design and people who are trained formally in it. There needs to be an understanding of stakeholders who are involved in the process or system to truly meet the needs of the people who are using it.

“With Peace Engineering, we can give students the opportunity to think about what brought them here. We can say, ‘Okay, you learned how to be a mechanical engineer and you spent a lot of time doing thermal or fluids or controls. Now, go back to what inspired you. Now, we’re going to talk to you about peace engineering.’”
James Tangorra

The context for this program is outside of the little box that we generally draw around engineering problems. It takes understanding both the technical and the social challenges in a system. Engineers have always been involved, but it’s often on-the-job training. You have to understand how engineering participates in stabilization, reconstruction, community development, and peace building. You have to understand the language, the problems. You have to be formally trained to work in the community. That’s what we’re responding to.

Has there been a sea change in the way engineers approach design and infrastructure solutions?

I think there has, or at least there’s an understanding that there should be. Engagement with stakeholders and users is really important, and our challenge becomes figuring out how to marry the analytic and data skills to the practices of people who have been trained in peacebuilding and conflict management.

In some ways, it elevates the impact that engineering can have in society. In engineering, we think of resiliency as the ability to recover from stress and return to an initial state. But with peacebuilding, resiliency introduces the opportunity to move to an even better state: it invites the engineer to consider what a better system might look like.

Do engineers have a natural affinity for peacebuilding?

In a way, yes. Students come into engineering not because they are historically focused individuals who want to do math problems. People go into engineering because they want to address problems. You talk to first year students and they say, “I’m an engineer because I want to change the world.” But then, they move into survival mode because the coursework is hard and the pace is demanding. So that by the time they’re juniors and seniors, we didn’t foster or nurture the initial excitement that they had. We stopped them from thinking about all the changes they can make in the world by having these technical skills, and instead we kept telling them to do this problem or do that problem.

But now, with Peace Engineering, we can give students the opportunity to think again about what brought them here. We can say, Okay, you learned how to be a mechanical engineer and you spent a lot of time doing thermal or fluids or controls and we were giving you somewhat bounded problems. Now, go back to what inspired you. Now, we’re going to talk to you about peace engineering. Or, forget for a moment about the word “peace.” We are going to talk to you about how to help society address its biggest issues using technological skills. In electrical, environmental, and mechanical engineering, we can do a better job addressing students’ creative impulses.

So, how do we teach that?

We start by helping students understand the unique challenges faced by communities struggling with conflict, and by building an awareness of what happens in the peacebuilding process—what conflict means, and what resolving conflict means; what approaches get used, and who uses them; where technology and innovation can help and when they can be misused.

It’s very analytical. When you start analyzing peacebuilding, it’s a matter of identifying what the conflict is and what the dynamics are and what your resources and opportunities are. In general, what are mechanisms that we can use to move a community toward a better direction? We want engineering students to recognize the role that technology plays in both creating and mitigating conflict. We want them to develop an understanding of how, when, and if technology might be implemented, and to bring a commitment to ensuring that their work improves the human condition.

“We want engineering students to recognize the role that technology plays in both creating and mitigating conflict. We want them to develop an understanding of how, when, and if technology might be implemented, and to bring a commitment to ensuring that their work improves the human condition.”
Mira Olson

In terms of what we teach, we have a core sequence in peacebuilding and conflict management. We also include courses in research methods, systems analysis, risk assessment, and the social dimensions of conflict. Students develop a technical focus area and then work closely with faculty and practicing peacebuilders to complete a field-based experiential learning project.

If our underlying goal is to encourage engineers to work in peacebuilding, what gives them the capabilities to do that? It’s not just taking classes. They will have the experience of working with people and identifying problems, changing the way in which we do engineering. The student is not going to be served unless they are exposed to real problems and communities to engage with. These elements have to complement each other.

It’s important to understand that we’re teaching students to work as engineers within the domain of peacebuilding—how to apply the highly technical training they get as engineers into a domain that’s really more difficult. In peacebuilding, people are just starting to understand how to take advantage of data, systems analysis, sensing—a lot of the techniques that engineers learn. So, we’re building on some of the fundamentals that students learn as undergraduate engineers and trying to make those skills useful in the multi-domain, highly complex systems where peacebuilders work.

Who do students work with in pursuit of their degree?

One advantage of our program is that we’re part of a fairly large network of peacebuilding and humanitarian organizations who see the benefits of working with engineers. These are people and organizations actively working in global peacebuilding, disaster relief, humanitarian projects and community building: over 100 NGOs, but also community groups, local governments, military offices, federal agencies.

An exciting aspect of peace engineering is that students’ work will not be done in isolation. By nature and design, the initiatives involve a wide range of local actors and agencies.

Which students would be best suited to the program?

We’ve had students from just about every engineering major enroll in our courses. This past term in “Introduction to Peace Engineering,” we had students from CBE, MEM, CAEE, Biomed, Engineering Technology and Project Management—really a great mix. And our first co-op students were from biomedical and environmental engineering. We’re recruiting the people who have a desire to address global issues—human issues.

Peacebuilding is new to all of us, but we’re seeing more and more connections to all branches of engineering. A lot of engineering is focusing the skill sets that you’re learning so it’s appropriate for the domain you’re working in and the problems you’re solving. Engineers don’t really have to learn fundamentally new approaches to do peace engineering. But you have to understand the assumptions that should be made when you’re applying those approaches. People who do that well—engineers who apply fundamental science in a practical way—really understand the systems they’re working with.

Can you discuss the coursework?

We’ve developed five new courses that are accessible to both graduate students and upper-level undergraduates. These have been developed in collaboration with our partners at the PeaceTech Lab and USIP, and they’re available now.

The new courses are: Introduction to Peace Engineering (PENG 545), Conflict Management for Engineers (PENG 550), Peacebuilding Skills (PENG 560), Systems Analysis for Peacebuilding (SYSE 540), and Community-Based Design (CAEE 501).

Starting next year, we’ll also be offering a one-credit Peace Engineering Research Seminar throughout the year. And there is the Peace Engineering certificate available for undergrads.

What’s the job field like?

We developed this program in response to requests from the State Department, the UN, federal agencies, and the National Academies to increase the role of science and technology in diplomacy, development, and disaster response. Our program prepares engineers to work with peacebuilders to accelerate the development of solutions aimed at resolving conflict. So certainly, we’re hoping that some of our graduates will answer that call.

But in addition to that, there are hundreds of NGOs with growing needs for engineers, opportunities for technology development and start-ups that could improve their chance of success with the insight of a peace engineer, and large companies and engineering firms that are increasingly aware of their contribution to the global peace index. We expect our graduates to find fulfilling careers either pioneering the new field of peace engineering or applying a peacebuilding lens to traditional engineering disciplines.

What about engineers who are not pursuing peacebuilding—is the program for them?

That’s been one of the most gratifying takeaways from the feedback we’ve gotten from the Peace Engineering courses: it turns out that engineers really can learn a lot from peacebuilders, and vice versa. The most consistent feedback we’ve gotten from students in the Introduction to Peace Engineering course is how valuable and relevant the skills are to their work, school, and daily lives. Peacebuilding skills further enhance the engineer’s professional toolkit, making them not only better in their work but also better able to address problems that arise in any workplace. Specifically, they cite peacebuilding problem-solving methods and understanding multiple perspectives as critical skills.

We certainly don’t expect that everyone who takes a peace engineering course will end up working in community peacebuilding and conflict management. However, we know that they will take with them the skills to be a better engineer. To think more deeply about their work and its responsiveness to the underlying problem they hope to address, its upstream impacts, its downstream impacts, its impact on human conditions. Peace engineering is strategic; it increases the likelihood that any project has a successful long-term impact.

If I am interested, what should I do?

Right now, we’re recruiting into the master’s program and we encourage students to apply! You can also take any of the Peace Engineering courses we offer throughout the year. For other students, there are volunteer opportunities, co-ops, and lots of projects that any student at any level can become involved in. There are inroads to Peace Engineering from all engineering programs and our plan is that people will adopt projects in their classes to fit within the peace engineering domain. As students enter into the program, we determine individual pathways for how their interests and expertise fit together.

We’ve also had a lot of students come in with independent research projects that they self-design. We’re building that library of projects, both internationally and locally. That’s why we’re not just a master’s program. We want to highlight that for our students.

Where can students get more info?

We are recruiting for the fall term. So students can apply now for the first MS degree program in Peace Engineering. They can be part of the first cohort of students specially trained to engage in the peaceful resolution of conflict alongside professional peacebuilders. It’s a very exciting program!

More information is available by contacting us at: