The First Undergraduate Minor in Humanitarian Engineering in the US

The Humanitarian Engineering program at the Colorado School of Mines is distinguished by its status as offering the first undergraduate minor in humanitarian engineering in the United States (and probably in the world) in 2003. Its history of critical reflection, conceptual development and integration of engineering and social science sets it apart in a rapidly growing field of humanitarian engineering programs.

Where has engineering been in humanitarian practices?

Beginning in 2003 with funding from a Hewlett Foundation grant, a small group of faculty from the divisions of Engineering and Liberal Arts and International Studies (LAIS), began exploring — through courses, projects and writings — how engineering could contribute to humanitarian endeavors such as disaster relief, famine, ethnic cleansing, and others, taking inspiration from the work of Fred Cuny, who was perhaps America’s first true humanitarian engineer. Through these explorations we realized that as a profession, engineering had come to humanitarian work relatively late (in the 1990s) and with great hesitation, especially when compared to professions such as medicine and law that had been involved in these activities for decades. This led us to ask: What is it about engineering that prevents it from having direct and explicit involvements with humanitarian causes? How might this distancing be related to its history; its relationship with the military, government and corporations; its demographics; its mindsets? If we can find out the causes for this distancing, how can we, as educators and our students as future engineers, change engineering to bring it closer to humanitarian causes?  This reflective and critical stance on engineering (its practices, knowledge, assumptions, creations and so on) has informed our program since its inception.

Where are communities and social justice in the work of engineers?

Following this critical stance, our faculty secured a number of federal grants, first, to understand how engineers have viewed, understood and served poor communities in the past and how we could do better in the future. We identified the limitations of engineering design for industry when applied to community development, developed criteria for engineering for sustainable community development (ESCD), and researched and wrote case studies of engineers who are doing ESCD well. COMMUNITY wellbeing became the first pillar of our HE program.

Soon we came to the realization that SOCIAL JUSTICE had been the key missing element throughout the history of the involvement of engineers with communities. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing with the emergence of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in the early 2000s, there has been increasing involvement of engineering programs and projects for marginalized communities, but few actually address systemic inequalities and forms of oppression, especially as these relate to engineering. We then secured a second NSF grant to develop a course in Engineering and Social Justice (ESJ) and write books on the subject which helped us make SOCIAL JUSTICE one of the three pillars of our HE program.

Where are interdisciplinary collaborations in humanitarian engineering?

In 2012, the HE program underwent a significant curricular revision by making ESCD its gateway course, infusing community wellbeing and social justice throughout many of its courses. In addition, further realizing the shortcomings of design for industry when applied to community development, we increased the percentage of engineering courses, particularly in the form of Human-Centered Problem Definition and Design. These courses allow students to experience engineering design while putting human needs as central considerations.  For the first time in its decade-long history, the HE program currently has half of its courses coming from the social sciences and half from engineering. The HE faculty team is now composed of engineers who value the social sciences and social scientists who value engineers and their work, making interdisciplinarity a trademark of our program.

Where are the opportunities and challenges of using Humanitarian engineering to address the social and environmental dimensions of the mining and energy industries?

In 2014, Chuck Shultz ’61—a Mines alum, a former energy industry executive, and one of our most committed supporters—challenged us to think about how to align the HE program with the strengths of Mines as an institution: our university’s unique and longstanding ties to the mining and energy industries. This led us to embrace a robust concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a vehicle to train engineers to serve communities while working for a corporate employer. CSR can be a controversial term, since some companies use it to greenwash irresponsible practices. We developed a concept CSR that is grounded in companies changing core business practices—including engineering—to create shared social, environmental and economic value with their stakeholders, especially communities affected by industry. Social Responsibility thus became the third pillar of our HE program. Recognizing that we were now serving two student audiences – one that gravitated to community development and another that aspired to serve communities while working inside corporations—we developed a new minor in Leadership in Social Responsibility (LSR) that welcomed its first students in 2017.

The Humanitarian Engineering program continues to be recognized around the world for its unique features that resulted from its history:

  • Its three pillars in community development, social justice, and social responsibility.
  • Its commitment to reflective and critical analyses of engineers and engineering.
  • Its close interdisciplinary collaborations between engineers and social scientists.
  • Its direct engagement of the mining and energy industries.

No other program in the world has these!


Mines initiates the new Humanitarian Engineering and Science Master's Degree

Launched in 2020, the Humanitarian Engineering and Science (HES) program educates technical professionals to promote sustainable community development by drawing on a unique mixture of faculty expertise in engineering, applied sciences, and social sciences. HES students engage in direct research and outreach within and alongside the communities they seek to serve. Project experiences prepare graduates for careers in development, corporate responsibility, or further study. Explore the MS and Certificate in HES.

Alumnus' gift propels the future of Humanitarian Engineering at Colorado School of Mines

Learn about our forward momentum, thanks to Charles Shultz ’61 and his wife, Louanne, who have provided a generous gift to support our continued growth, reach and impact inside and outside the university.