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Showing students humanitarian value of engineering is mission of new President’s Professor

ASU Mark Henderson President's Professor

Professor Mark Henderson. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU


During his time as an Arizona State University undergraduate and graduate engineering student, Mentor Dida started two nonprofit organizations that now strive to help alleviate poverty and promote community development in his native country of Kosovo.

Current ASU engineering undergraduate Stephen Annor-Wiafe has secured startup funding to establish a venture he hopes will provide food, employment and environmental conservation in his homeland of Ghana.

Dida and Annor-Wiafe say they never imagined that as young college students they would be working to get such ambitious projects off the ground. And both say it would not have been possible without guidance and inspiration from Mark Henderson.

They are two of hundreds of students that Henderson, a professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has motivated and taught to develop skills that prepare them to make a positive impact on their communities and the world, says Professor Ann McKenna.

McKenna is director of the Polytechnic School within the Fulton Schools, where Henderson was instrumental in establishing a focus on an emerging field called humanitarian engineering and co-founding the related GlobalResolve program.

McKenna says those endeavors have raised the bar on ASU’s commitment to enabling students to expand their education by putting to use what they learn in classrooms to help solve real-world problems. These are among the accomplishments that make Henderson more than worthy of his recent designation as an ASU President’s Professor, she says.

Making students believe in themselves

The President’s Professor title honors faculty members who have made significant contributions to undergraduate education at ASU through innovative teaching methods, designing new courses and curriculum, and mastery of their particular fields of scholarship.

Just as importantly, it recognizes faculty who have been especially successful at helping students to boost their critical thinking skills and creativity, and engaging them in learning and community service opportunities beyond their required course work.

Colleagues and students alike attest to the far-reaching impacts of Henderson’s efforts in all of these pursuits.

In addition to his job with the engineering programs, Henderson has been connecting with students throughout ASU in his other positions as an associate dean of Barrett, the Honors College, a senior sustainability scientist for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and as an affiliate faculty member with the School of Public Affairs.

In each of these roles he has guided students in achieving not only academic success but in cultivating their professional interests and life goals, says Margaret C. Nelson, vice dean of the honors college and a President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

“His work brings opportunity and success to students, who learn to believe in themselves as much as he believes in the them,” Nelson says.

Mark Henderson Global Resolve

Professor Mark Henderson (right of center, in blue shirt) poses with ASU students and residents of Biemso, Ghana, and the community’s chief, Nana Bodiako (center). Henderson and the students were there to aid with a project to produce biodiesel fuel from a local oil-producing plant. Photograph courtesy of Mark Henderson.


Commitment to experiential learning

McKenna points to Henderson’s work a decade ago with seven other faculty members to create the Polytechnic School’s Bachelor of Science in Engineering program.

He helped to develop an engineering curriculum “that focuses on student engagement through problem-based learning while meeting the demands of industry to produce engineers who are globally aware and technically competent,” she says.

A key feature of that curriculum is a design project course requiring students to participate in experiential learning during every semester in which they’re enrolled in the program. At the time the requirement was initiated it made ASU one of only a few universities in the United States to do so.

Many programs across the country soon followed and increased student project work, and in 2012, McKenna notes, the Polytechnic School engineering program was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering as one of the top 29 experiential learning programs nationwide.

Henderson co-founded ASU’s InnovationSpace, which brings students together to collaborate on developing entrepreneurial ventures aimed at meeting societal needs. He also founded a Global Engineering Design Team that joined ASU undergraduates with students in other countries to pursue solutions to technological challenges.

Challenging students to help change the world

His efforts to provide students with experiential education are being further accelerated through his work as the founding director of the Alliance for Global Impact in partnership with the National Peace Corps Association, and most dramatically through his long-time leadership of the ever-expanding GlobalResolve program.

He co-founded GlobalResolve a decade ago with a small group of ASU faculty — including co-director Brad Rogers, a fellow professor of engineering — with the goal of challenging students to design and produce low-tech tools and systems to help communities in developing countries improve their quality of life.

The idea, Henderson says, “is to teach students that you need more than technical expertise. You need a 360-degree view of a community’s culture, its economics, history and politics, to truly achieve sustainable solutions to technical problems.”

GlobalResolve has since gotten more than 600 students involved in its various projects  — teaming those in engineering, the sciences, business, humanities, design and other degree programs — to provide clean water, sanitation, energy, agriculture, health services, education and housing to people in Africa, India, Mexico, the Navajo Nation, South America and Southeast Asia.

The program is teaching ASU students to “tackle head on tremendous needs that exist across many societies by designing solutions to address those needs in ways that lead to unique learning experiences,” says Professor Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools.

Henderson’s dedication to the cause comes from “his own personal resolve to convince students that they can change the world, and to equip them with the skills and mindset to do just that,” Squires says.

Mark Henderson Global Resolve

Henderson (left of center) talks with residents of a community in Ghana about efforts to use local resources to produce fuels for cooking and generating electricity. It’s one of many projects in which Henderson has engaged ASU students in endeavors to develop technological solutions that help raise living standards in developing countries. Photograph courtesy of Mark Henderson.


Projects springing up around the globe

GlobalResolve has given rise to the GlobalResolve Club, a group of undergraduate and graduate students who volunteer to coordinate projects that take fellow students to other countries to implement their engineering solutions. Many ASU faculty members are also volunteering to lead projects.

Current efforts led by club members include a collaboration with the nonprofit organization Green Communities to help Costa Rica get closer to its goal of becoming energy independent. Students and the organization are developing more efficient machinery for production of biofuels to aid the coffee farming industry in the small mountain community of Santa Maria de Dota.

Another involves rebuilding a badly storm-damages greenhouse for an orphanage in Peru to enable children there to grow their own food. It will be powered by both solar and wind energy technology, and have a hydroponic system for farming greenhouse plants and raising fish.

Other projects have sprung from two courses Henderson teaches, Best Practices in Humanitarian Engineering and Design for the Developing World, an honors course.

One endeavor — the idea of Laura Hosman, an assistant professor in the Fulton Schools and ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society — will use a specially-designed web server that generates its own Wi-Fi signal and solar power to provide a digital library of educational resources for young students on Tonga and other South Pacific Islands. ASU students are now refining the hardware and software for the technology.

In Nepal, ASU students led by Netra Chhetri, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, will help eradicate an invasive vine that is crowding out native vegetative food sources for local animals. Students are developing a tool to harvest the vines and convert them into a fertilizer to improve crop growth.

In Kenya, MasterCard Foundation Scholar Teresia John is leading a team that will install a lighting system allowing students at a girls’ school to study after dark in a village where there is no electricity or running water. Elsewhere, solar-powered irrigation systems will be built by group of students to help farmers in South Sudan.

Students led by Michael James, a faculty associate in the Polytechnic School engineering program, are planning to help build a base camp — including installing water and energy systems — for hundreds of volunteers working with a nonprofit group that erects basic housing for communities in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.

In Colombia, students in partnership with the Swillings Coffee company based in Phoenix are going to work with local farmers to improve their harvesting of coffee plants and implement use of coffee-bean drying machines they’ve made. The machines are designed specifically to overcome an obstacle to efficient coffee production that stems from the wet environment in Colombia’s rain forest regions.

Inspiring courage to step into the unknown

ASU alumnus Andres Neal says what he learned from Henderson through GlobalResolve has had a life-changing effect.

Neal was assigned to a project to aid farmers in Trinidad and Tobago by producing diesel fuel and extracting coconut oil from local resources.

The challenges the task presented “drove me far out of my comfort zone in mechanical engineering and into an area that requires creativity and courage to explore the unknown,” he says.

He credits the lessons the experience taught him for much of his career success today.

After graduation Neal worked for Baker Hughes, the third largest oil field services company in the world. He says his hands-on education at ASU helped him stand out among the many applicants for his job with the company.

He became a cement engineer but was later given an added role as a reliability engineer, a job for which he says he was “hand-picked because of my willingness to perform outside of my comfort zone” — something that Henderson and GlobalResolve prepared him to do by “helping me to grow as an individual and an engineer.”

Neal now works for General Motors in the position of validation engineer. He says whenever he begins to doubt his ability to take on such new and more demanding roles, he overcomes it by remembering how Henderson’s enthusiasm and dedication encouraged him and fellow students to overcome their anxieties and forge ahead.

Promoting the positive force of engineering

The opportunity to play a part in students’ accomplishments is why Henderson says he “can still wake up every morning and have something to be excited about” after 32 years at ASU.

Early in his career, after earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, Henderson found a good-paying job with General Motors. But he soon found himself being pulled by a desire to teach.

“It must be in the genes,” he says, noting that his parents were high school teachers, and that dozens of relatives were teachers at various times during their lives. His daughter is now also a teacher.

He went back to college to earn a teaching certificate, and then a doctoral degree from Purdue University in computer-aided design and geometric modeling.

His combination of skills made him a perfect fit for the collaborative approach to research and education practiced in ASU’s engineering programs.

Henderson says his zeal for his job is buoyed by the creativity and commitment of his colleagues in branching out from the traditional boundaries of doing and teaching engineering.

The free-minded attitude toward innovation has helped to open the doors for pursuits such as the development of humanitarian engineering studies and the establishment of GlobalResolve.

Through those efforts in particular, “We get to see students come to the realization that engineering can be such a force for making a positive difference in so many peoples’ lives,” Henderson says.  “I love to see the change that comes over them when that happens.”

Media Contact
Joe Kullman, [email protected]
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

About The Author

Joe Kullman

Joe Kullman is a science writer for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Before joining Arizona State University in 2006, Joe worked as a reporter, writer and editor for newspapers and magazines dating back to the dawn of the age of the personal computer. He began his career while earning degrees in journalism and philosophy from Kent State University in Ohio. Media Contact: [email protected] | 480-965-8122 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Communications

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