New Face honoree takes holistic approach to civil engineering

Math has its limitations.

It’s likely a controversial opinion among engineers, but one not without merit.

Perhaps Aaron Opdyke says it better: “As engineers, we need to look beyond the technical solutions.”

Opdyke is passionate about teaching technical knowledge within a socioeconomic context as a leader of a groundbreaking humanitarian engineering program at the University of Sydney.

Aaron Opdyke

ASCE has honored Opdyke as a 2021 New Face of Civil Engineering.

Opdyke, Ph.D., P.E., CPEng, M.ASCE, grew up in Redlands, California, before earning his bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo and his master’s and doctorate at the University of Colorado Boulder.

But even as his studies kept him relatively close to home, his work took him all over the world.

Opdyke volunteered with Engineers Without Borders on projects in India, Thailand, and Nicaragua. In 2014, he worked as an engineer for Build Change in the Philippines on housing reconstruction in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. And he returned to the Philippines as a Peace Corps Response volunteer working on disaster risk reduction programs. His more recent work includes projects in Haiti, Bangladesh, and Timor-Leste.

So, Opdyke’s holistic approach to engineering is not merely conceptual. He’s lived it.

Opdyke spoke with Civil Engineering Source about his career.

Civil Engineering Source: You have done so many different kinds of projects all over the world. Was it always your intention to work on an international scale like this?

Aaron Opdyke: Definitely not. In fact, the first time I left the United States was on an engineering project with EWB while pursuing my undergraduate degree. I think engineering itself had always been something I wanted to pursue. I was always interested in solving technical challenges. But it wasn’t until I got a little bit further into my career that I realized I wanted to pursue that international nature of work.

Source: What was the motivator for that?

Opdyke: I think one of the biggest motivations was the opportunity to work across different cultures. One of the things that I find so exciting about the work I do is the opportunity to interact with so many different kinds of people.

I had been exposed to the basic fundamentals of engineering but then I was exposed to all these new challenges and new opportunities in international contexts. As an engineer, I was really drawn to this additional layer of complexity. I think that’s what really took me down that path.

Source: I know you’ve been instrumental in starting this new program at the University of Sydney. So what does a humanitarian engineering program entail?

Opdyke: We’re focused on training engineers to work with marginalized and low-income communities. Traditional engineering toolsets, while they provide a base for us to work in these contexts – we really need as engineers to go a step further to understanding the unique challenges that these types of communities face.

We focus on four different areas: international development, disaster response and recovery, working with indigenous communities, and also the role of engineers in conflict and stabilization.

That’s how we think about humanitarian engineering. But more broadly, we’re really focusing on teaching engineers the skills to work in resource-constrained communities.

Source: Do you think engineers are inherently suited for that kind of work?

Opdyke: Absolutely. The problem-solving mindset itself lends well. I think one of the biggest things we work on getting our students to understand is social and economic constraints as well as the role of infrastructure in addressing issues of social justice. Engineering has a large role in addressing global development challenges.

Another thing that’s really ingrained in our program is instilling culture competency – the ability to work with people who think very differently from yourself and trying to approach problems in that manner.

Source: What’s the most important thing you think needs to change or improve in the civil engineering field during the next five, 10 years?

Aaron Opdyke leading a community workshop to map flood hazards in the Philippines.

Opdyke: That’s a big question. We need to continue developing technical competencies, but I think it’s really about trying to understand the changing nature of social and economic problems. As engineers, we need to look beyond the technical solutions. We need to contextualize the work we’re doing in the broader nature of society. Ultimately, the infrastructure we’re building and designing serves a social purpose. It’s really important that we understand that broader context and the communities we’re working for.

Source: What about working in academia and teaching appeals to you?

Opdyke: One of the things that really stands out to me is the ability to conduct research that improve lives. It allows me the ability to work on really interesting problems on a daily basis – thinking about long term challenges that we’re faced with and trying to generate knowledge beyond the scale of just a single project.

Being honest, when I started my Ph.D., I had no intention of going into academia. I think eventually what really took me down this path was the huge impact to be had, trying to build a knowledge base for future engineers to improve practice. And the second thing is obviously the ability to work with students. That’s something that I really love about my job. They’re extremely passionate. It’s a unique responsibility to shape and mold future generations of engineers.

Source: What was the decision like for you when the opportunity to come to Sydney presented itself? Was it difficult or a pretty clear choice?

Opdyke: It was pretty clear. I got hired into my current position and the program had just started. Our program was actually the first humanitarian engineering program in Australia. It was such a unique opportunity.

Before that, I had been doing a lot of work in the Philippines and I had just come off finishing my Ph.D., which had also focused on that context, and my current position enabled a natural continuation of that work and springboard to new opportunities.

Source: What happens next? Where do you see your work going from here?

Opdyke: Career-wise, I’m definitely hoping to continue to build our research and education programs. In any given year, we have about 40 students enrolled in a formal major in humanitarian engineering, and an annual basis we’re teaching upwards of 200 students in our classes, exposing them to a new side of engineering. I’m eager to continue exposing students to the global reach of engineering.

On the research side, disaster recovery and disaster-risk reduction are my core areas of research. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore how globally and locally we can reduce disaster losses.

Read more about the 2021 New Faces of Civil Engineering.

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