Engineering to Help Communities or Students’ Development? An ethnographic case study of an engineering-to-help student organization

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David LaPorte
Erin Kim
Jessica Smith


This article offers a critical ethnographic analysis of the organization Mines Without Borders (MWB), a student group at Colorado School of Mines. It evaluates the impact the group’s institutional culture has on its effectiveness as a student-led engineering-to-help organization. Through ethnographic and participatory research methods, we sought to understand members’ motivations for joining the organization, their prior knowledge of engineering-to-help, their critiques of the organization, and how well MWB balances service learning for their members and impact on the communities they seek to serve. A participatory photo essay was used to illustrate the perspective of the community members in Nicaragua, and vice versa. The researchers found that members are primarily motivated by a desire to help disadvantaged populations, have little background knowledge on principles of engineering-to-help, see the organization as socially exclusive, and that MWB places a greater emphasis on student experience than community impact. The participative photo essay suggests that MWB members and community members have different perceptions of what constitutes collaboration. This research advances current research on engineering-to-help organizations with the growth of humanitarian engineering programs throughout the world. The results of this ethnography have been used within the organization to enhance its potential effectiveness to benefit students and community members alike.

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Author Biography

David LaPorte, Colorado School of Mines

Master of Science student, Department of Geology and Geological Engineering