Alumna's career driven by passion for humanitarian engineering
Illinois alumna Kendra Sharp’s passion for humanitarian engineering has impacted people around the world. A professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, Sharp founded and now directs OSU’s humanitarian engineering program. She was named the Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering in 2015. She earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Illinois in 1993, and a PhD in TAM in 2001.
With an extensive background in experimental fluid mechanics, Sharp has focused her research on international development and sustainable water and energy systems, including small-scale approaches to generating hydroelectric power. Called micro hydropower, these systems use energy from smaller, natural waterways. Sharp began her efforts to implement or improve micro hydropower systems in 2010 in Pakistan, where half the population has little or no access to power. This led to collaborations with Pakistan’s National University of Science and Technology—and her work has evolved from there.
She has participated in instructional and organization teams for three consecutive International Development Design summits, hosted by the International Development Innovation Network. The annual summit offers workshops on various aspects of humanitarian engineering, from teaching about aspects of the design process to hands-on skills like welding and basic woodwork.
Each year since 2015, Sharp has traveled to Chennai, India; Lahore, Pakistan; and Si Saket, Thailand, respectively. At each summit, she taught design sessions that focused on developing a strategic approach to solving problems in the field. She also led various skill-building workshops such as metalworking and using hand tools.
“The best part about my academic position is having the flexibility to direct my own learning and professional growth, to get involved with new networks of people, and take advantage of really interesting opportunities as part of my job,” Sharp said.
Sharp’s outstanding efforts to promote education most recently include starting a humanitarian engineering program at OSU, which she began developing in 2014.
“One of the most exciting aspects of our program is that our students and faculty really get an interdisciplinary experience,” Sharp said.
OSU now offers a series of courses in Humanitarian Engineering, Science, and Technology (HEST). So far, nine faculty from the College of Engineering and other colleges teach HEST courses. So far, the program has raised sufficient external funds to award nearly twenty graduate fellowships, as well as sponsor humanitarian engineering capstone design projects.
For graduate students, research projects often include technological testing in the field or field research for user-centered design. Some graduate students working with engineering faculty at OSU have installed hydrometeorological weather stations in various African countries, while others have participated in field tests in Guatemala, Honduras, and Uganda.
The HEST minor requires coursework in anthropology, which Sharp said is useful for improving one’s understanding of user preferences and user behavior.
Sharp values opportunities the program provides her for working with students.
“Field engineering practice often forces us to be a bit more creative about solving equipment or research problems on the fly and with limited resources,” she said. “Every time I get to award a graduate fellowship for some exciting cross-cultural travel opportunity related to engineering, I feel that I have made a substantive contribution to that student’s experience.”
Her work has also earned her prestigious recognition from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She recently won ASME’s Edwin F. Church Medal, awarded annually to an individual who has made a significant contribution toward increasing the value, importance, and attractiveness of mechanical engineering education.
“I was very excited to see that a professional engineering society is recognizing humanitarian engineering, since it’s often not what we think of as traditional engineering,” she said.