‘Nelson Mandela represents the power of integrated collaboration’ – EBIT lecturer Dr Lelanie Smith

Posted on July 09, 2021

“If I had to define myself, it would be as a teacher – I am extremely passionate about the educational process,” says Dr Lelanie Smith of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) at the University of Pretoria (UP).

As Head of Community-based Projects and Coordinator of the Vertically Integrated Project, Dr Smith is involved in the faculty’s Community Engagement module, in which 1 700 second-year EBIT students are enrolled and which provides them with an opportunity for real-life problem-solving. “Initially students may lack interest in the programme, but as they start to engage with the communities, they realise the difference they can make, and many go on to form long-term relationships and volunteer their time afterwards – this is why this type of service-based learning is so important,” Dr Smith said.

She relishes this role through which she is able to educate students on how to combine technical expertise with professional and personal development, and so help them to make a meaningful, sustainable contribution towards the communities they are working with.

“Another extremely valuable aspect of this module is that students are forced to step out of their engineering mindsets and listen to the human side, putting aside the assumption that they have all the answers and instead working towards a mutually beneficial solution,” Dr Smith adds. “This is a process I went through and is a key area for growth, given the anticipation that engineers will become future leaders as they hold the keys to both technology and humanity.”

Dr Smith is also an aeronautical engineer who has collaborated with international partners on new aircraft configurations. “Regardless of the role I am in, I always gravitate towards pulling various separate parts together. In the aeronautical space, I looked at the integration between airframe and engine, and how different universities could combine strengths and work together. Now my hope is that I can shape an integrated educational experience for students.”

Dr Smith was inspired by a visit to Aalborg University in Denmark where every student, regardless of their field, is entered into a group work structure at the beginning of their studies. All themes are centralised and they are given a challenge or issue in their environment to contribute towards solving, with input scaffolded according to their year of study.

“Being able to see the transformation and impact of one’s work would work incredibly well in the South African context, where there are so many different challenges to tackle,” Dr Smith said. “Professor Carin Combrinck of UP’s Architecture Department has mastered this with the Urban Citizenship group, where honours-level students seek to understand systemic issues with community leaders, mapping a way forward towards real, long-lasting change. If we can harness the 1 700 EBIT students in the same way, to work across disciplines and in collaboration with focused communities, we can achieve so much more than a quick fix, and our young engineers will emerge from university with a far broader perspective on their role in society.” 

As to the impact that former president Nelson Mandela has had on her life, Dr Smith said that she’s been reflecting on how he may have felt when he finally stepped into a role where he was able to realise his long-held ideals. “I wonder if he felt discouraged when people couldn’t get on board with his vision because they were limited by their subjective beliefs. He grasped the necessity of moving towards a collective well-being. So, for me, Nelson Mandela represents the power of integrated collaboration. Perhaps having had so many challenges towards integration in our country makes us more vigilant and aware of the opportunities that lie in putting aside our biases and pulling together to move towards the greater good.”


- Author Primarashni Gower

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