We present the findings organized into four categories that address four major influences on participants’ HumEng identity development: (1) honoring their socio-cultural background; (2) practicing engineering skills; (3) helping others; (4) and traveling and encountering new cultures. These categories worked to facilitate and generate motivation for students to develop their vision and identity as Humanitarian Engineers. Before introducing the themes that are related to Humanitarian Engineer identity development, we begin by providing a synthesis of participants’ motivations to be Humanitarian Engineers.
4.1. Motivations to Be Humanitarian Engineers
In order to understand participants’ motivations to be Humanitarian Engineers, we asked their perspectives on HumEng. A frequency analysis (via NVivo 12) showed the participants’ definitional words revealing the overarching theme of improvement and the connecting of humans and community. Participants defined HumEng related to a communal goal, such as helping people or communities in need and improving/changing lives and demonstrating engineering knowledge and skills for problem-solving or engineering practice. Participants tended to include these five keywords in their definitions besides human and HumEng, which are the most frequent words for the definitions but indicate the word itself: problem, solve, people, community, and create. They used words representing characteristics as an engineer such as problem, solve (solutions), develop, and create and mentioned words linked to humanitarian such as people, community, help, and improve. Interestingly, while male students frequently used the words problem, solutions, communities, develop, and help in their definition of HumEng, female students frequently employed problem, solve, people, community, create, and improve.
It seems that female students were more likely to define HumEng related to a communal goal in a detailed manner, such as “engineering with the goal of improving the lives of the underprivileged and marginalized of underdeveloped communities”. Some female students incorporated the words social responsibility or sustainability in their definitions, and it seems that they had a deeper understanding of HumEng, whereas male students were more likely to specify their definitions related to practicing their engineering skills (e.g., “developing solutions in hopes of solving a definite problem”). These differences in definitions may help guide researchers to consider the human dimension of HumEng at the very early stages of HumEng theory and development alongside the technical dimension regarding engineering practice through problem-solving. A focus on problem-solving can also lead to a deficit approach to development, looking for individual problems and issues to be solved rather than focusing on promoting human development and well-being [24
]. This is in contrast to a strengths- or assets-based approach, which places greater emphasis on local communities and individuals and building from existing resources, strengths, and skills [25
The responses indicate that while female and male students did not all operate with the same definition of HumEng, their foundation is generally the same. All seemed to see HumEng as an extension of human activities and as a collaboration between people and community.
In terms of motivations to be Humanitarian Engineers, four common categories of motivations in both male and female students were documented: (1) communal goals to help others or improve the world, (2) demonstration of engineering knowledge and skills in real-world contexts, (3) interest in HumEng and sustainability, and (4) career readiness. Both genders showed predominant motivations toward the communal goal of improving the world and the demonstration of engineering knowledge and skills, the latter of which motivates male students more than female students. Besides these shared motivations, male students answered that self-development, such as changing their way of seeing the world and learning something valuable in life, and prior experience related to HumEng brought them to the course. Male students took HumEng as an opportunity to practice and confirm their engineering skills. Female students reported that experiencing other cultures and traveling abroad encouraged them to join the course. While female students paid attention to new cultures, male students seemed to be interested in adopting new inputs for self-development (See Table 1
4.2. Major Influences
In order to understand what influenced students’ motivations to be humanitarian engineers, they were asked about their personal experiences and interests encouraging their class decision-making. Four categories of influences emerged to explain students’ motivations to become Humanitarian Engineers: (1) honoring their socio-cultural background; (2) practicing their engineering skills; (3) helping others; (4) and traveling and encountering new cultures. These categories worked to facilitate and generate motivation for students to develop their vision and identity as Humanitarian Engineers.
Data analysis led to the development of a model based on a central phenomenon (see Figure 1
), a HumEng identity that coalesced by reciprocal interactions of engineering identity and humanitarian identity. Engineering identity seemed congruent with engineering skills and interests while humanitarian identity was influenced by a communal goal (helping others) and a motivation to explore new cultures. This emergence and development of HumEng identity generated envisioning a possible future self as Humanitarian Engineers.
Engineering identity and humanitarian identity are demonstrated as bubbles in order to show the mutually exclusive and reciprocal relationship between the two, and they are permeable and flexible according to the situations and time. In this study, participants’ HumEng identity consolidation has not happened yet because they are still in the developing period. Therefore, certain factors may change in their impact (support or hinder) continuously as the two identities fuse or consolidate in a HumEng identity. In other words, participants’ HumEng identity seemed to develop over time as a result of accumulated life experiences as well as a possible future self who will practice engineering in a humanitarian context. The arrows demonstrate the influence and exposure to various sustainability topics that impact participants’ humanitarian and/or engineering identity. Interestingly, female students seem to develop a humanitarian identity more than an engineering identity while male participants develop an engineering identity more than a humanitarian identity. The four individual influences identified are described further below.
4.2.1. Influence of Familial/Cultural Background with Sustainability Issues
As a first theme, we identified a significant role played by cultural background or critical incidents in allowing participants to envision a future self as a Humanitarian Engineer. Most frequently shared in interviews were references to the familial community, the closest and most fundamental community. Participants reported on their previous experience and interactions within the context of socio-cultural groups that struggled with a lack of resources. Participation within cultural/familial groups allowed them to enrich their motivation to be Humanitarian Engineers, and this process impacted their identity development. In other words, participants’ country of origin and ethnic background seemed to be not only strong influences on participants’ envisioning of a humanitarian identity but also indicators of the participants’ perceived humanitarian and engineering identity development at that time. Several participants with heritage connections to African or Asian nations testified that they wanted to become Humanitarian Engineers to support their own country; they were motivated to commit themselves fervently to acquiring engineering technical and entrepreneurial skills. For example, a male student from Africa mentioned:
There were a lot of problems to solve in my hometown… most of all, water sanitation, vegetable production, and language education are the most urgent matters. I want to contribute to my community. I think I can make some difference because I learned a lot. I am a software engineer so I can develop something.
This excerpt demonstrates the significance of participants’ background as a motivator to be a Humanitarian Engineer because of their background. During the interview, he mentioned several times his hometown and its sustainability challenges intensively, and he is hoping that he can contribute to the community with his software engineering skills. He said that he already developed software that can help children to learn languages. It seems as though he has developed both humanitarian and engineering identities compared to other participants who are developing one side first (e.g., engineering identity or humanitarian identity). Another student, participant F, mentioned that she grew up in a family who were refugees, and she wanted to return to her home country to help others:
I’m from Kenya and I have seen how much impact a well-thought-out social venture can have in solving the general public’s problems such as water sanitation and farming. I intend to have the skills to spot a problem and follow a repeatable process to solve their problem in a sustainable/profitable manner.
Interestingly, this participant did not mention much about her engineering skills throughout the follow-up interview, but she addressed starting a social venture to solve problems for her home country and spent quite a long time expressing her passion to work for her community. It did not seem that she had a strong sense of self-efficacy as an engineer. In her case, her humanitarian identity is more significant than engineering. We noticed that other participants who described past impactful triggering events were also influenced to become Humanitarian Engineers, such as participant G:
My mom was definitely encouraging as she was an entrepreneur with her own start-up law firm. Hearing the experiences of others really encouraged me and then being in Africa was one of the highlights of my college life. I want to be an engineer who can help those who need help.
In her case, her mom was the greatest influencer on the participant’s envisioning of being someone who can help others. She also had or was developing more of a humanitarian identity rather than an engineering one. In sum, several students seemed to be influenced by their cultural and family background to pursue becoming a Humanitarian Engineer. We separated this source of motivation from another theme, ‘I shall live for others’, because students who explicitly mentioned their background seemed to use it to envision a particular future context in which to practice being a Humanitarian Engineer, possibly serving as a stronger resource of motivation.
4.2.2. Ambitious Boys: Desire to Practice Disciplinary Skills and Knowledge
Participants’ sense of HumEng identity seemed strongly influenced by a level of engineering knowledge and skills and entrepreneurial knowledge. We inferred that a perception of disciplinary knowledge acquisition significantly impacts participants’ HumEng identity and enables them to envision possible professional selves as Humanitarian Engineers. Interestingly, more male students mentioned their engineering competency first, followed by the humanitarian aspect, whereas female students identified helping others (humanitarian aspect) more often as a major factor in wanting to be Humanitarian Engineers before demonstrating their engineering competency. There was a substantial number of male participants expressing their strong engineering competence and self-efficacy as engineers while explaining their motivations to join the HumEng class. Participant D mentioned that he would like to be a Humanitarian Engineer because he can practice what he learned from school. He thought that getting an ordinary engineering job in a firm would be boring and would rather have more freedom to practice his ideas and engineering skills. He also addressed that becoming a Humanitarian Engineer would provide more opportunities to practice this creativity, problem-solving skills, and engineering skills. He did mention supporting and helping others, but practicing engineering skills was a greater motivator than helping others. Similarly, another participant E expressed:
I am pretty good at software programming...America is too packed. I think I can find more opportunities in other countries like Africa...I think I can help people through a technology social venture.
Along the same lines, male participant H seemed to be preoccupied by his engineering competency and mentioned:
I am an engineer at heart, but what I want more than anything is to use my strong suit in math, problem-solving...my engineering skillset to make a real difference in the world, to create revolutionary products that help peoples’ lives.
Interestingly, this participant expressed himself as an engineer who will create products for people. It seems his engineering identity is more solidified than his humanitarian identity. He provided what knowledge and attributes support him to be an engineer including math and science knowledge as well as problem-solving skills. This is another example that shows multiple identities develop across engineering and humanitarian values. In this case, engineering identity seems to be a more dominant identity than humanitarian. This could relate to an understanding of engineering as “technology”- rather than “human”-focused and that, in fact, this student could see that all engineering makes a difference in peoples’ lives.
Participant B stated, “As an engineer, I would much rather be doing hands-on work and be able to see the direct impact of my work on others”. Thus, one reason mentioned by students for joining the HumEng course seemed more related to the opportunity for real-world practice of engineering skills rather than for its humanitarian connection. In addition, according to participants’ testimonies, it seemed that participants were envisioning or developing multiple identities: engineer, entrepreneur, and humanitarian. However, they did not seem to have a solid concept of HumEng. In addition, no female participants mentioned their engineering competencies that will allow them to be Humanitarian Engineers. Their motivations are discussed in the next section. Finally, there is an interesting phenomenon that seems to confirm the multiple identities negotiation between engineering identity and humanitarian identity. That is, these dual identities are not static but dynamically fluctuating through their thoughts, inspirations, and emotions until they are consolidated.
4.2.3. Women’s Altruism: I Shall Live for Others
Most participants mentioned that they had a life goal or desire to help others through their technical engineering skills. Some students already had some degree of vision and understanding of HumEng. However, female participants showed a stronger motivation to contribute to others or communities than male participants. As addressed in the previous section, male participants were more interested in demonstrating their disciplinary competency through humanitarian works while female participants seemed to have more communal goals and desire to help others with their acquired technical skills. In this case, the humanitarian side of identity is more significant than the engineering identity, as Figure 1
presented. As female participant C stated:
I am incredibly interested in helping people across the world, and I have been heavily involved in philanthropic work since the 9th grade. It is incredibly rewarding, and I can’t explain how important it is to use our resources to help those who have none.
In this excerpt, participant C expressed her strong desire and determination to help others. Although she had strong convictions and desires to help others, subsequent interviews and writing samples showed that participant C did not have a clear action plan to fulfill those desires. In addition, her engineering-related knowledge and competency were still developing, as was her sense of engineering identity.
Participant A also shared participant C’s strong conviction for humanitarian work.
I wanted to get some more real-world experience on how to use my engineering education and supplement it in order to help others. HumEng combines what I am already learning in school, with different aspects in order to create products to help others. There are a lot of people who need help. I am majoring in system engineering so I am not too sure how I will help them but I think I can figure it out.
Whereas participants A and C do not have a clear sense of future HumEng plans or work, participant K discussed how her humanitarian drive was specifically related to her plans. In addition, participant K said she grew up in a rural area in Africa, she never had hot water, and the town is still struggling with water sanitization. She would like to solve this issue for the community, and that is why she chose to be an engineer. She spent considerable time explaining HumEng throughout the interview. She said even if she did not know about the term HumEng, she always wanted to be a person who can fix those issues. She learned the concept of social entrepreneurship, but she does not think she will start a business. Her humanitarian identity seemed much more significant than her engineering identity at this moment.
In their responses, male students’ overall data did not show the same level of concern for humanitarian motivations in engineering work. That is, as the previous section explained, male students did share a sense of humanitarian identity, but it was not as significant for male students as it was for female students. For instance, male students would only briefly mention helping others as a single phrase rather than provide long descriptive answers as female students did. However, interestingly, female participants seemed to express that helping others is their final goal and that technical skills are necessary tools to accomplish their goals. They also demonstrated socially oriented emotions such as sympathy and empathy for current sustainability issues. This altruism theme also showed an example of multiple identities development according to female participants’ motivation and knowledge. Female participants’ humanitarian identity seemed more significant than their engineering identity, but some seemed to struggle with combining those different identities due to their technical competency. As it was demonstrated in the previous section, male students are more confident about their technical skills, and they would like to demonstrate them in a humanitarian and sustainability context. Therefore, male students’ engineering identity seemed more significant than their humanitarian identity.
4.2.4. Out of the Box: To Meet New Cultures in the Future
As a last theme, several participants addressed that they would like to be Humanitarian Engineers because they had a passion for traveling and exploring new cultures. They liked the nature of the work of HumEng that requires connections to new cultures and working internationally. Participants who mentioned experiencing a new culture seemed as if they have a particular future envisioned international community that they would like to be associated with. Participants who addressed traveling and exploring new cultures seemed to have a weaker commitment to becoming Humanitarian Engineers compared to individuals whose value for HumEng came from a desire to help others, previous experience, or motivation to practice their technical skills. As an example, Participant H mentioned that she wanted to be a Humanitarian Engineer because she can travel and learn about new cultures. Participant J also mentioned:
Personally, my biggest motivators are that I love learning about new cultures and new places. I wanted to get some global exposure, and this class and this minor allows me to combine all of these aspects.
Participant M addressed that her life goal is traveling and helping other people, but she did not have many opportunities to travel. During the interview, she said that she is hoping to obtain an engineering job so that she can travel. She did not demonstrate a strong desire to help others, but she liked the encountering-a-new-culture aspect of HumEng. She did not express a humanitarian identity nor an engineering identity. Participant K mentioned:
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. I did not have many chances to see the world...I thought it’s wonderful to learn about other cultures and how I can contribute to others with my engineering skills...I wish I could get a job in another country.
This category of motivation for the HumEng program encompassed not simply wanting to enjoy opportunities to go abroad and learn about new cultures but also to contribute to others. Students think understanding different cultures will be inevitable for engineers who will work in foreign countries. This aspect is related to the previous section about helping others, but they would like to experience a new culture while helping them. In terms of conviction, their commitment to being Humanitarian Engineers seemed low, and their engineering identity is slightly more significant than humanitarian identity. Therefore, their identity negotiation process is milder than other participants who have stronger motivations to be Humanitarian Engineers.