Engineering a better world

Using a hands-on approach and real-world applications, Aaron Brown helps students become global citizens.

By Tom Wilmes

Publish Date: February 18, 2015

Aaron Brown instills some social responsibility along with his engineering lectures. Photo: Mark Woolcott

Aaron Brown helped design the landing mechanism for the Mars Curiosity Rover. He also worked on a mission intended to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

Despite these interstellar accomplishments, the mechanical engineer feels most fulfilled when he’s working with his students to make life better for folks here on Earth.

“I empower my students to be global citizens through a variety of projects that give them real-world experiences and a different perspective on things,” said Brown, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology. “It’s a completely different approach than just theoretically learning about engineering in a classroom.”

As evidence of his unique approach, Brown started a Humanitarian Engineering course and club at MSU Denver. He and his students work with communities in need worldwide to solve specific problems in straightforward, sustainable ways. In the process, students also learn about the more altruistic applications of engineering and the immediate impact that their work can have.

During a service trip to Costa Rica last May, Brown’s students used readily available materials to build a hot water heater for a local school that could be easily maintained. When villagers expressed frustration that monkeys were stealing their eggs, Brown’s group designed a nesting box with a chute that safely transfers chickens’ eggs directly into an enclosure for collection.

Closer to home, Brown and Humanitarian Club members have installed several simple solar furnaces in homes throughout Denver’s Westwood community. The devices, designed by Brown, pull air into a box containing an array of soda cans; the sun warms the air and it’s then used to heat a room. The devices are inexpensive to build, yet have a big impact on people’s quality of life. There’s also been talk of using them to warm tents in Syrian refugee camps.

“Traditionally, engineering has been for the top 10 percent, but the rest of the world can benefit from the skills we have,” said Brown. “Most of the world’s citizens lack simple needs like safe drinking water, adequate sanitation or even enough electricity to power a single light bulb.”

Brown’s hands-on approach resonates with students like Francisco Sanchez, who took Introduction to Mechanical Engineering with Brown and participated in the Costa Rica trip.

“When I first started in engineering school, I wasn’t aware of any social justice or sustainable engineering prospects in the field,” Sanchez said. “But the way Professor Brown talks about engineering made me realize that there are lots of different applications for engineering and a lot of places engineers can work that fit exactly with what I want from my career and for my future.”