LOWELL — Per Onsager and Craig Miller have one important thing in common: Both hold the somewhat unusual belief that engineers can make a difference in people’s lives, by solving problems that many of us have the luxury of taking for granted.
The two men are at different stages of their careers. Onsager just graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell this weekend. Miller, an active alumnus of the same program, owns a successful business.
But their shared passion helped propel a group of UMass Lowell students to Haiti this spring for a highly unusual senior project, intended to translate classroom knowledge into real-world progress.
Senior projects are an engineering-school staple, intended to display the knowledge students have accumulated through their coursework.
Typically, one might involve thinking through how to fix a bridge or improve a dam near campus. Almost none of them require negotiating the Haitian capital and surrounding countryside for a week to design a warehouse.
But that is what the students did. The warehouse is for medical supplies used by Partners In Health, the beloved Boston nonprofit that provides medical care in underdeveloped countries.
For two years Onsager had hoped to do something more ambitious than usual. “I thought most of the projects were lame, frankly,” he said. “I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”
His advisers were sympathetic, but the idea of designing or building a project in another country seemed out of reach. Finally, the school’s dean suggested that Onsager talk to Miller.
The adviser didn’t even know that Haiti has been a consuming passion of Miller’s for 17 years, nearly his entire career. When he was just out of school, he had become involved in renovating an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. It marked his first time in Haiti, and over the years that followed, Miller would return. As for many others, the place had grabbed a piece of his heart.
“They had structural and sanitation issues that I could get my head around really quickly,” Miller explained. “I learned that a civil engineer in an emerging country can really make a difference.”
All of which made him the perfect partner for Onsager and his senior project. Miller helped steer the way and, after much deliberation and a failed attempt to partner with students from another university, Onsager was able to assemble a team to work on designing a warehouse in Haiti.
He and his fellow students Brendan Sprague, Karen Yaipen-Definis, Mark Georgian, and Jonathan Ernst traveled to the site of their project during spring break, where they got a crash course in engineering in the real world.
Their work, done with limited resources, required making a host of engineering decisions, engaging locals to work with them for nominal sums, and navigating the bureaucracy of a foreign country. In the process, they learned firsthand what people who live in Haiti grapple with every day.
Whether their design will get built is unclear. Partners in Health is juggling a number of potential projects in the area, and whether the warehouse is their greatest need has yet to be figured out.
But for the students, the fate of their design is secondary to the hands-on education they got in trying to come to terms with — and solve — the problems of an impoverished area. It opened their eyes, they said, to what engineering can accomplish.
Edward Hajduk, dean of the engineering school, said the project has already had an impact among his students: 18 have signed up to raise money to fund another senior trip to Haiti next year. For a program committed to connecting theory and practice, that’s a welcome development.
Miller figures the most important lesson the students learned wasn’t academic. “As civil engineers in the United States, we make people lives faster and stronger,” he said. “But in places like Haiti we make people’s lives possible.’’