Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Giving Back with Engineering Design

PostedTuesday, December 10, 2019 at 3:42 AM

Giving Back with Engineering Design

One of the things I like most about this time of year is the plethora of stories about people giving back to their communities. People are doing this all year round, but it seems like December is the one time of year when people seek out and share these feel-good stories with regular frequency.

Friends and family members, knowing my interest in engineering and design, will often pass on stories they find featuring students who have designed products to help those in need. Two stories that recently passed through my inbox really captured my attention.

LuminAID lanternLuminAID is the brain child of two architecture graduate students challenged by a professor in 2010 to “design a product to assist post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti”. These two women did their research and realized that there was a real need for better lighting in camps and shelters. Due to weight and space constraints, however, not much in the way of lighting was included in the relief shipments to areas affected by disaster.  So, the students designed a compact, lightweight, solar-powered lantern.

There are now LuminAID lights that can charge phones, ones that mimic fireflies and flickering candles, and ones that allow the user to choose from 9 different colors of light. They are popular with hikers, backpackers, and campers. But most important, they are used in emergency, refugee, and disaster relief situations around the globe. (You can even sponsor a light for a family in need.)

EMPWR coatThe Empowerment Plan started life in a similar fashion. In 2010, Veronika Scott was an industrial design student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. A professor challenged her to design something that “fills a need” in the city of Detroit. Working with people in a local homeless shelter, she designed the EMPWR coat — a fully insulated, waterproof jacket that converts into a weather-resistant sleeping bag and/or knapsack.

Scott took the project further: “Our goal is to help build a better life for those that have become trapped in the cycle of homelessness. We mostly hire homeless parents from local shelters to become full time seamstresses so that they can earn a stable income, find secure housing, and gain back their independence for themselves and for their families.” EMPWR coats are now distributed to around the world. (You can sponsor a coat.)

Projects that change – and even save – lives can and do start with an educator challenging students to use their design skills to help others. Through engineering experiences, young people learn that shaping the future isn’t something others do – it’s something that we all can do.

I chose to write about these stories because they happened to be the ones that recently resonated with me personally.  But there are many, many more stories about how young people have taken design challenges to heart and made a real difference in their community. As you guide and inspire your students, I hope that you can take time to share some of your uplifting engineering design stories with others in our community.

All of us at LinkEngineering wish you a safe and joyful holiday season.

LuminAID photo by from the LuminAID website;
EMPWR coat photo from The Empowerment Plan website
Image of Hands by Michael Illuchine found on