Poverty, sustainability and service

Aug 24, 2007

Kettering faculty members Andy Borchers and Laura Sullivan recently participated in a unique conference titled the Christian Scholars Conference at Rochester College that examined how the U.S. can gear its economic engine to help those who are less fortunate.

Dr. Andy Borchers '80, associate professor of Information Systems, and Dr. Laura Sullivan, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering University, recently contributed presentations and papers to the 27th Annual Christian Scholars' Conference at Rochester College in Rochester, Mich. The title of the session, which Borchers organized, was "Christian Perspectives on Poverty, Sustainability and Service Orientation."

Borchers and Sullivan's participation in this conference is particularly noteworthy, since Kettering is an engineering, applied science and management institution. Joining them at this conference were a number of religious, social science and history experts. But given the nature of Borchers' and Sullivan's recent research interests, their involvement makes perfect sense.

This conference, titled "The Emerging Shape of Global Christianity," took place June 21-23 and featured Phillip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of Religious Studies and History at Penn State University and author of 20 books, including The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity. Critics have hailed his newest book as a contemporary classic.

Borchers' paper presentation was titled "Global Christianity and Questions of the Commons-Sustainability and Developing World Needs," which focused on answering two questions: How can we tune our economic engine to operate in a smaller footprint consistent with sustainable economic activity? And how can we meet the earthly needs of the four billion souls currently earning less than $2,000 a year?

His work on this subject is the result of what Borchers describes in his conference paper as a "continuing journey by the author. After some 20 years as an information technology professional, I entered academic life in 1997." As a result of this experience, his research during his time at Kettering over the past few years has in his words, "brought together a vivid tapestry of topics-globalization, environmental sustainability, economic development and entrepreneurship. These topics sometimes 'clash' in the classroom as we try to make sense of very complex problems with dire consequences for humanity."

After teaching information technology subjects for several years, certain circumstances led him to begin teaching courses in international business, industrial ecology and entrepreneurship. This experience, as well as in-depth reading of several books such as C.K. Prahaled's The Fortune At the Bottom of the Pyramid and Jeffrey Sach's The End of Poverty? exerted a considerable influence on how he perceived the import of these courses on students and on his own ideas on how our society and world can help those who are less fortunate. His perception of these issues is rooted in his Christianity, which has helped him better understand the importance of social responsibility and duty to those in need. To illustrate these points, he uses Bill Gates' recent shift in focus to philanthropy as a new model for more socially responsible entrepreneurship.

Sullivan's presentation also addressed this idea of social responsibility through Engineers Without Borders (EWB, www.collegeknowledge.us), a student organization on campus that she currently advises. EWB is a national nonprofit humanitarian organization that partners undergraduate engineering students with developing communities worldwide to improve the quality of life in those communities. This partnership involves the implementation of environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects to the benefit of the community good.

In July 2006 the group undertook its first project titled "Climbing through Flint," an effort where students designed climbing walls with a colorful slide for local elementary schools. In addition, EWB took on a project in Kiln, Miss., to improve a therapeutic horsemanship facility that provides services to children and adults who have mental, physical and emotional disabilities. Many of the people who benefit from this facility also suffer from the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. On a global scale, another group of students from Kettering recently began their EWB project in Estanque de Leon, Coahuila, Mexico. This village is lacks potable drinking water throughout most of the year. In late April and early May, the village residents are without any water at all.

Students participating in this project are working to develop a means of collecting rainwater-a daunting task since only four inches of rain fall on this area between May and September of each year, and only one additional inch of rain falls between October and April. Once the students design and implement a sustainable means of collecting and storing water, a system will need to be built that will filter and purify this water to make it safe to drink. Through EWB, Sullivan has found a great many engineering students interested in using their education and skills in helping communities around the country with basic needs.

"A growing number of experts are recognizing the 'Millennium Generation' as being more civically and globally engaged than prior generations, and this couldn't be more obvious to me than with Kettering EWB students who give of their time and ingenuity to make life better for others in their hometowns and abroad," she said.

For Borchers and Sullivan, the "Emerging Shape of Global Christianity" conference represented a unique opportunity to examine more closely how professions can potentially help those individuals and communities that are less fortunate or experiencing difficult situations.

Written by Gary Erwin