Written by Sustainability Engineer, Maeve Carlson
Every night on Hurricane Island at 6:00PM there is a gathering of everyone on the island to experience the “dinner circle”. This allows visitors to get acquainted with the staff, share a moment and a quote together, and figure out what is for dinner. Some people are super into dinner circle, but I don’t identify as one of those people. I think it is nice, but I also could probably do without. One of the main reasons is that frequently staff share what their position is here on Hurricane, and for me, that proved to be fairly difficult to articulate. Usually I ended up with something along the lines of:
“My name is Maeve & I am doing engineering stuff here”
Pretty vague, but close enough...
I came to Hurricane Island this summer as a volunteer with a degree in Civil & Environmental Engineering from the University of Maine. The goal was to geek out for two months over our infrastructure, including the photovoltaic system, grey water treatment, composting toilets, and especially our water system. I wanted to learn about the sustainable systems on the island because they are such unique examples of what I have studied for the past few years. However- because my position was so “made-up”, no one really knew what my role was within the organization. While I was figuring that out, I noticed was that no one really knew what being an engineer was either. I thought it was hilarious when I would get asked to do things that I had absolutely no business doing because of the stereotypes associated with my degree.
“Can you fix the printer?”
I can’t blame others for not knowing what it is that engineers do; everyone at Hurricane always told me that the organization has never had an engineering position before. Sometimes they even claimed that they hadn’t been exposed to engineering, but whether or not they realize it, those statements are totally false. If I can say anything with confidence after my time here, it’s that 1) Hurricane Island already has extremely competent engineers employed on the staff and 2) engineering is at the core of a lot of the work being done here.
After being in the STEM world for a while, I have decided that the difference between science and engineering is pretty simple. Science is the pursuit of knowledge to foster a deeper understanding, and engineering is the application of knowledge to actually do something. Scientists create the theories & engineers apply them. In my mind, any project that is using science as a tool to solve a problem or improve a system should be considered engineering. Though the pillars of the Hurricane Island Foundation are Science, Education, and Leadership, I think the structural support that holds them together is engineering. I only had two months here, but you don’t even need that long to find examples:
The next time you sit down to enjoy a meal from the galley, look down at your plate and see if you can recognize the decisions that went into providing you a nutritious meal while minimizing food waste and environmental impact. The gardens don’t magically produce the greens that we serve daily, but the effort it takes to cultivate them is justified by the understanding that by growing food here, we are taking steps to address the global issues surrounding agricultural engineering.
Ask yourself: Is our research team performing experiments and gathering information about scallop aquaculture so they can publish a paper and leave it at that? No. There is an application for the research being done; the end goal is to provide a framework for local fisherman who want to move towards a more diversified and sustainable fishery, and to help them set up their farms.
All the program participants that visit the island walk away with some sort of new skill or understanding, but the hope is that it doesn’t stop there. Listen to our educators as they inspire students to take home what they’ve learned and let it fuel a project that will improve their own community. The engineering process is all about identifying a problem and working towards a solution, and is what we are teaching here.
Follow the facilities team around for a day (or 20 minutes) & pay attention as they piece together solutions to all the challenges that pop up from having keep an “off the grid” island running. They don’t have the normal resources available to them out here, but it doesn’t really matter because the “wrong tool for the right job” mentality is just an example of how they engineer a solution based on what they’ve got. I know many engineers that don’t possess that ability, and don’t know many who can do it quite as well as those that I have met this summer.
The transfer of scientific and technical knowledge within this community to encourage visitors, staff, and program participants to think critically about how to solve problems and improve the world shows how engineering is intertwined with so much of what we do here at Hurricane. It has been an absolute joy to be able to bring some engineering to this community, even though they’ve been incorporating it long before I arrived.
So, to all of my fellow engineers:
Thank you for the work you do, and for a wonderful summer
-Maeve “Sustainability Engineer”