Engineering Resilient Community Engagement

by Susan Juniper Park

On a beautiful April day in South Berkeley, I instantly relax as I step into the lush urban paradise of Ashby Garden.  It’s a busy work party day and volunteers are peppered throughout this fecund haven with it’s emerald Spring leaves bursting from the ground and the bright technicolor of sundry flowers beckoning the native butterflies and bees.

I turn a corner and notice some of the hardest working folks are a quad of UC Berkeley students who are busy digging and weeding.  These students are here with Engineers for a Sustainable World—a national organization made of professionals and students. This local chapter is based out of UC Berkeley and it’s student membership is drawn from the University’s venerable Engineering and Science programs.

For two work parties ESW has co-organized with the NorCal Resilience Network to support grassroots community efforts that provide food security, gathering spaces and urban greening.  First at Hoover Elementary School earlier in the same April and now at Ashby Garden, the diligent and industrious ESW crew has helped with everything from re-designing a chicken coop, to helping with promotions, to getting hands-on dirty with neighborhood volunteers. The projects were supported thanks to a grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellors Fund.

After a shared lunch, I sat down with the four students including project leader Priscilla Khuu, to learn about their experiences supporting these projects and about their future goals.

Please introduce yourselves and what brought you to ESW.

Kristy Wong (3rd year Molecular & Cell Biology major):  I wanted to get into something to do with environment.

Priscilla Khuu (Civil & Environmental Engineering major w/ focus on Environmental Engineering):  I wanted to get hands-on experience, and thought it’d be cool to get involved with a community garden and actually do change.

Jerik (1st year Civil & Environmental Engineering major):  I’m really interested in public service and project management.  I’m also really interested in Environmental projects.

Adrian (1st year Chemical Engineer major)


What is ESW & How long has it been around?

Priscilla:  It’s a national organization that has professional chapters, but the chapter at UC Berkeley is made of students and not all the projects are community-based.  Some are campus or research based, and they all take into account sustainability. For example there was one where they tried to take paper towel waste into energy.  It’s been around UC Berkeley for a few years now. There’s one at Clark Kerr (dormitory) that’s working on water conservation stuff. There’s one working with Hoover Elementary.  There’s one that’s building a succulent wall on campus.


How is working on community-based projects influencing your trajectory of studies?

Jerik:  One of the most important things is community engagement and I feel that’s really overlooked in engineering projects.  So for sure with Ashby Garden there’s a lot of community engagement, talking with community members and instead of just creating the engineering projects, giving some options on how to attack these projects.  I think this will help ESW members with their future and give the skill they will need in their careers.

Priscilla:  Helping the garden feels really fulfilling and makes me feel sure that’s what I want to do.  In the end I want to be an engineer to help people and help the environment.


Has being involved in more low technology and low funded projects changed the way you look at the work you can do in the world?  Is that different from what you’re being taught in school?

Priscilla:  It’s definitely different than what we’re being taught in school.  Like this chicken run, we had to do several iterations on the design and really understanding that what you design isn’t what’s actually going to be built when it comes to actual construction.  But that’s not really talked about in our Engineering classes, it’s more theory-based and how technology works. But that kind of technology isn’t really here [at Ashby Garden].

Jerik: I think for sure the challenges with working in the community gardens is definitely fulfilling in that it teaches the students and the members how to work with funds, work schedule, and materials—just being able to make it efficient for the purpose of the project.


Prior to involvement in these community projects, had you heard of the term “resilience” versus “sustainability”?  What difference do you see between the two?

Priscilla:  I know NorCal Resilience is about making sure the local community can withstand things without having to rely on outside sources.  And I know “sustainability” is more like global scale, it doesn’t have to focus on local. But I think “resilience” does, which is important.

Jerik:  I think the stigma around “sustainability” is around not about being able to retain its own assets and functions.  The term “resilience” has more clear cut way of saying we’re able to do our own thing and functions, we’re not reliant on government or other parties.  Just being able to be independent and that’s a distinction from “sustainability” I think.


Do you think this distinction is going to affect the work you’re going to do in the future around engineering or science?

Adrian:  As an engineer you want to make something that’ll last long, not just sustainable for the environment.

Priscilla:  I wanted to make environmental justice a thing, because environmental engineering is more office work and technical stuff but I want to promote environmental justice on the side.  I think learning about resilience helps change my mindset about how to go about the solution. But I still need to think about how I can help.

Kristy:  I think for research it’d be really important to innovate new technologies that are more accessible to communities without as many resources, so it changed my mindset in that way.


How are you sharing the learnings from these projects with your fellow students, and incorporating into your studies?

Jerik:  I used to be in one of the competitions team at Cal, and it seemed to be more of a repetitive nature to get the best efficiencies and such.  So I thought ESW had a little bit more from the beginning stages to end stages and everything in between, it was more comprehensive in terms of learning.

Priscilla:  ESW has a project showcase at the end of the semester, it’s when all the project leaders come and showcase what they do.  All ESW members and anyone else is welcomed to come and talk to us about it. And hopefully this is also helping to promote more awareness about the topic.


What’s next for each of you?

Kristy:  I’m not sure about my professional career track but right now I’m considering becoming a physician’s assistant so applying to PA school and getting some healthcare experience.

Pricilla: My goal for now is to become an air quality consultant, but also work on environmental justice issues on the weekends.  I’ll be helping out with the garden over the summer as well, and maybe into next semester if Jerik is too busy with other plans to take on Project Lead!

Jerik:  I plan to continue my membership in ESW.  I’m only a freshman right now, and hopefully I could become a project lead.  Eventually I want to work in the public sector. I think working with the community is the best part.  I don’t see private sector as having as big of an impact as the public sector. I’m just getting new skills and trying to feel out the different areas of Civil Engineering, and hopefully I’ll decide my path.

Adrian:  I’m also going to continue with ESW and my next goal is to get a research position.  Maybe after that I’ll try to do something where they’re trying to turn algae into energy.


*Thank you again ESW for a wonderful and fruitful season of partnering on community projects! And thank you to the Chancellors Fund for supporting this collaboration!