Bernard Amadei
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   United States

Bernard Amadei

Engineers Without Borders
Bernard Amadei is transforming the field of engineering, particularly mechanical and civil engineering, by revamping the traditional training model and establishing professional standards to integrate…
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This description of Bernard Amadei's work was prepared when Bernard Amadei was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Bernard Amadei is transforming the field of engineering, particularly mechanical and civil engineering, by revamping the traditional training model and establishing professional standards to integrate the field more closely with global issues such as poverty alleviation, hunger, and disease.

The New Idea

By engaging students, professors, and professional engineers in an experiential framework, Bernard is trying to shift the field to focus on truly sustainable engineering. The core of Bernard’s work is to offer rigorous, meaningful opportunities to integrate two things: Learning engineering skills in an applied context, and playing a life-changing role in substantive, sustainable engineering projects in the developing world. Through the engagement of professors and practitioners, sustainable engineering is spreading and changing the way that the engineering profession is both thinking of and educating itself across the country, causing it to become an even more powerful piece of the solution for some of the world’s most pervasive problems, such as poverty, pollution, hunger, and disease.

Bernard is accomplishing this in several related ways. First, in 2002 he created a new strain of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), first by establishing EWB-USA, an organization that not only sent students overseas to do short-term projects in developing countries, but also sought to educate those students more broadly and rigorously about development, and to do “real” engineering—pairing students with professionals to create sustainable, lasting projects, and to train local engineers and students to ensure the long-term success of the project. (EWB projects are the culmination of course study and planning, rather than an internship-type of experience.)

EWB-USA integrates the participation of faculty on over 200 of its 385 chapters. These chapters multiply their impact by igniting the interest of professors to change the curricula to fully embrace the notion of practicing sustainable engineering in their respective universities. Currently, there are 12,000 members in these chapters (USA) of which 45 percent are professional engineers (55 percent students).

Subsequently, Bernard co-founded EBW International, a network of EWBs worldwide who share his vision of students, professionals, and local engineers planning and executing applied engineering projects as a key part of sustainable community development and poverty reduction. These groups are neutral/non-political and affiliation requires a screening process for matching ethics. To date, there are 45 chapters globally affiliated with EWB International.

Third, Bernard created an Engineering for Developing Communities Program at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2004, which has been so successful that it was endowed by the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities in 2009. He is working to make this the gold standard of teaching engineering students in a radically new way about their profession—enabling them to think and work “sustainably,” with an eye toward the whole community they are serving and will spread the teachings through the center’s model for training engineers.

The Problem

Mechanical and civil engineers, particularly in the U.S., are well trained in the directly relevant fields of science and mechanics. However, their understanding of how their work can make a deep and lasting difference in the developing world is often narrow, and their career options are often the same. As such, there is tremendous wasted human capital among the ranks of engineers, many of whom, given cultural and technological shifts in society, are hungry to use their skills and knowledge in solving humanity’s problems.

A partial solution did exist in the original EWB, begun in France along the lines of Doctors Without Borders. However, while it sends students on short-term trips, Bernard found that it did not place its work within a broader context of thoughtful, sustainable development. It has short-term aid as its goal, rather than maximizing the tremendous opportunity for students to see and practice engineering in the greater context of human development, to work alongside professional engineers in a meaningful way, and to train-the-trainer locally, so as to enable both the long-term maintenance of the project and the fostering and/or strengthening of an indigenous engineering capacity.

The Strategy

In 1997, when Bernard’s landscaper mentioned the need for an irrigation system in his native village, he volunteered to help. Two years later, the landscaper took him up on his offer, and Bernard gladly accepted. With his 12 students they raised US$14K for themselves, 2 professors and essential equipment. The success of that trip in 2002, and the student’s eagerness for more, made Bernard curious. He began to sense the historical moment in which he was teaching, when engineering students, as well as many young engineering professionals, were no longer satisfied to join the ranks of traditional engineering societies, or overly concerned with the bigger picture their work might fit. Bernard began to have an implicit vision to use the gifts and skills of engineering to make the world a better place, to understand the communities where engineers worked, so they could better serve them. This vision included high levels of local participation, in-depth study of the communities they would serve, as well as greater development of the cultural context. It also included high-quality engineering projects that were culturally relevant, maintainable, and sound. Early on he knew this would require including professional engineers in the effort (both pre-trip and during).

Bernard began by looking for anyone already doing this in the U.S., but found no one. So he went overseas and found EWB, and met with them several times. However, as they didn’t share his same emphasis on the inclusion of education about development, professional engineers, running the trips themselves (i.e. rather than simply sending students to work with citizen organizations), extensively training locals, and committing to a community for at least five years (so relationships can be built and greater impact can be achieved), he decided to simply start his own version of EWB from scratch.

At the same time, at the beginning of some joint projects in the field, other like-minded EWB chapters began to band together, joining in Bernard’s vision for a more comprehensive approach. He decided to formalize their partnership in an entity called EWB International (2002), which is more of a decentralized network than a centralized organization, with EWB-USA as its connection point.

From 2002 to 2004 EWB-USA was a low profile on-campus program, as Bernard worked to break barriers with the university. However, given his essential nature of education, planning, and involvement of professional engineers, he believed that creating EWB through universities was the best way to establish and grow EWB-USA. Bernard had two jobs. Although quite stressful, in 2004 his work paid off when the university saw enough potential in the idea to provide an assistant for Bernard—then EWB-USA really picked up steam. They received several outside grants (e.g. from Boeing, saying they needed leaders not just engineers) and their growth ballooned even more—working in 48 countries in 7 years.

In 2005 Bernard stepped down from the full-time running of EWB-USA (i.e. in addition to his teaching load) to focus on two things. First, as EWB-USA was evolving, he became more convinced that the traditional way engineers are educated is too narrow, and he saw more cases where good engineering did not equal good development. So he determined to create a new curriculum for educating engineers interested in working in development, just as business & architecture schools were beginning to educate those who wanted to lead in the social sector and/or in developing economies. Bernard wanted engineering students to understand sustainable engineering in the context of sustainable development, so he created a program (now become the Mortenson Center), which allows students to learn not only engineering technology, but also economics, public health, politics (e.g. governance and security), and social entrepreneurship, using Ashoka and Ashoka Fellows as case studies! Its innovative, integrated approach has attracted large numbers of students, including more women than usual. The center is also developing methods and doing the necessary R&D to support that. Furthermore, the center also serves all other EWB-USA members and is the core of his system change mechanism. This is what it makes EWB more than the sum of thousands of projects. The center was established in April 2009 with a US$5M endowment from a construction company. Bernard works full-time at the center and has five full-time and five part-time faculty members involved in its operations.

Bernard is also focusing on projects and relationships that will be pilots for using engineering as a vehicle to create peace. For example, through EWB International, he is working to bring together EWB-Israel and EWB-Pakistan in a joint project as part of the “Abraham Path Initiative,” and is also working to bring together the Turkish and Greek elements of EWB-Cypress in a joint project. And though it is not without its challenges, Bernard has been working in the past couple of years in Afghanistan, to enable engineering projects that will play a role in stabilizing the country. Similarly, he has organized a multi-faceted course that not only combines the study of development with actual projects (like the center), but also true cross-cultural experience throughout. As such, Bernard will teach “Engineering for The Developing World: Middle East Approach,” in Haifa, Israel next summer for 15 engineering students from CU Boulder and 15 from Israeli universities. It will feature morning classes in development (e.g. anthropology, culture, and geopolitics) and afternoon joint projects in Bedouin and Druze communities. Bernard’s goal is to conduct such classes in different areas in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world.

Bernard is a model to his students in the practical application of engineering knowledge for the public good—spending some of his time inventing or spreading mechanical engineering solutions. For example, when he received a grant from a private donor interested in Afghanistan (i.e. where Bernard had been working on and of for five years), he used it to pair up a Nepali inventor of a press to make fuel briquettes out of trash, an Afghan businessman, and a group called Afghans4Tomorrow, whom he had known since 2007. To date, the project has involved over 82 orphaned, disabled, and formerly trafficked youth, who study in the morning and make briquettes in the afternoon. He says the project needs just one more year to become sustainable. When Bernard saw that quality was an issue, he got some of his students at CU to invent ways to ensure quality control for the briquettes. They are also examining the economic aspects, studying how a family might create a viable business from briquettes.

The Person

Bernard is the grandson, son and brother of bricklayers, and while his family has run a respectable and sound business for generations, he is the first in his family to go beyond a high school degree and their French village. Bernard learned the spirit of community, helping others in need, and loyalty from both of his parents. After a time of hard work mastering his chosen profession (a Ph.D. in engineering from UC Berkeley and extensive coursework toward a Ph.D. in theology), he worked for six months at a consulting firm and then joined Colorado University. Why? He knew he was a free spirit, and feared becoming a “gerbil.” Bernard wanted to choose his own projects to study and found the three summer months crucial for working on his innovative projects with corporations (i.e. mainly R&D on his specialty—geotechnical engineering). Almost immediately, he started engaging students in his work outside the university.

In fact, it was so fast paced that Bernard burned out. In 2005, after years of intensive travel to establish both EWB-USA and International, in addition to his full-time teaching load, he began to suffer serious physical consequences. In retrospect, he sees it as one of the best things that ever happened to him, because it forced him to slow down, to assess what was the best use of his time and talents, and to reorganize his life accordingly. So Bernard stepped down from the full-time running of EWB-USA and focused on International, creating the center at CU, and his inventions. He credits his wife and his mentors, with which he says he has always been blessed, with helping him learn and grow from what could have been a disastrous experience.

Bernard also understood his motivations more clearly. He knew he could never give up his EWB work because it was the marriage of his gifts and a fulfilling application of them. But Bernard also saw that his life was increasingly guided by one vision—that while one person can make a big difference, one person galvanizing a group is exponentially as powerful. Bernard’s honesty and humility about this brief interlude in his story is very inspiring, and has clearly brought him stability, focus, and wisdom he may have not been able to achieve without it.

Bernard also sees the goal of his work with EWB-USA and International, and other projects and inventions, to use engineering as “compassion in action” and “a vehicle for peace.” This broader yet deeper vision of his work has grown in the past few years, as he travels the globe’s hotspots, such as the Middle East.

Bernard is married with two children, a daughter studying biomedical engineering, and a son studying film. He works full-time at the Mortenson Center that he launched and is fully committed to scaling up the impact of the center and his idea. In his free time, Bernard is an active volunteer at a homeless shelter and a children’s hospital in Boulder, and likes to exercise, read, and travel. He is also a trained pilot of single and multi-engine planes, and is currently learning instrument flying.

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