TEDx: Engineering and the Human Element

POSTED ON: September 27, 2012

Madeline Foster's helping a young child build a structure out of cardboard

A 2012 graduate of Cooper's civil engineering program, Madeline Foster's passion about engineering shines through her TEDx talk. Foster discusses her travels to Jirapa, Ghana with fellow classmates and faculty from the School of Engineering. It’s in Ghana that Foster claims she learned the true meaning of interdisciplinary thinking, studying the way Jirapa’s 30,000 inhabitants harvest and use firewood as their primary source of energy. “Think like a rural woman,” Foster proclaims in her talk, describing the way the women of Jirapa are productive without competing, and the way they effortlessly manage the multiple roles of mothers, workers, students, and providers.

Her passions and research won the young civil engineering graduate a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2012, which Foster put to use pursuing her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, California.

It’s easy to see that the human element of engineering has been a formative inspiration to the Albert Nerken alumna, and even during her undergraduate years it lead her to get involved in teaching. While at Cooper, Foster was a Fellow at Iridescent Learning, a California-based nonprofit with a South Bronx location that develops engineering education for underserved elementary and middle school children and their families. Foster enjoyed being challenged to relate advanced engineering knowledge to much younger students. “We try to focus on engineering and not just science. You’re not just doing experiments with the kids but creating something new. It allows this creative side to open up for them, they constantly surprise us with their great designs,” Foster says of the program. 

In her academic work, Foster studied the way built systems can interact with natural systems, rather than just mimicking, replacing, or counteracting them. In particular she focused on coastal restoration projects, environmental engineering, water treatment, and the reuse of the effluent (waste) it produces. It seems like a natural area of interest for the New Orleans native who says she comes from “a long line of petroleum engineers.” 

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.