Mortenson endowment focuses on building globally responsible engineers

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Civil engineering alumnus Mort Mortenson, his wife, Alice, and M. A. Mortenson Company endowed the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities with a landmark gift in 2009.

A CU engineering team traveled to Haiti on the second anniversary of the country’s devastating earthquake in January to build a foundation for the growth of green energy. Faculty and students are collaborating with a school in Leogane, where the earthquake was centered, to create a vocational training program on the installation, operation, and maintenance of renewable energy systems.

Meanwhile, another CU team continued its work with the Crow Tribe in Montana to meet the community’s housing needs through the construction of new affordable and energy-efficient homes using locally sourced materials and labor.

Both projects were developed by the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities, a CU-Boulder program endowed in 2009 with a landmark gift from 1958 civil engineering alumnus Mort Mortenson, his wife, Alice, and M. A. Mortenson Company. The Minneapolis construction firm has built numerous CU buildings, including the Visual Arts Complex and the University Memorial Center on the Boulder campus.

“When I first heard Professor Bernard Amadei talk about the importance of addressing global humanitarian needs, I was inspired by his passion,” says Mortenson, who joined his father’s construction firm in 1960 and now serves as its chairman. “The numbers he presented (at the time) were very compelling―1.2 billion people in the world lack clean water, 1.2 billion people lack adequate housing, and 2.4 billion people lack adequate sanitation.” (See for updated statistics.)

Equally compelling, Mortenson says, was Amadei’s deep commitment and enthusiasm for helping millions of people through engineering solutions. “I too, am energized by engineering,” he says. “I love to build, and Bernard believes in building the way that I do—working together and utilizing everyone's perspectives to find innovative solutions.”

Amadei, who now holds the Mortenson Endowed Chair in Global Engineering, recognizes that comprehensive strategies and a new mindset in engineering education and practice are needed to make a substantial and systemic change in addressing the basic needs of billions of people throughout the world. Thus, the Mortenson Center uses an integrated approach that includes educating globally responsible engineers, conducting interdisciplinary research and development to create innovative solutions, and putting that learning and research into action through direct service to developing communities worldwide.

“After witnessing Bernard’s passion and understanding his unique approach to implementing engineering solutions, our family was inspired to get involved,” says Mortenson. “We not only wanted to be associated with building the Engineering for Developing Communities program, but also wanted to ensure its future success by creating an endowment to
sustain the work.”

Mort and Alice Mortenson’s daughter-in-law, Dana, is directly involved in the center through its advisory board, where she brings her experience as co-founder of World Savvy, a nonprofit that supports K–12 students in becoming responsible global citizens.

Some Mortenson employees also are connected to the center’s work, as responsibility, service, and stewardship are interrelated values at the core of both the company and family. For example, one employee who has been volunteering on an individual basis to help re-develop Haiti partnered with the Mortenson Center on an initial audit of engineering needs there.

“We believe that we are accountable to the common good of individuals and communities,” Mortenson says. “We are here today―as a company, as engineers, as communities―because generations before us handed down their legacy of hard work. We are committed to preserving this legacy to serve and benefit others.”

Three years after establishing the endowment, Mortenson says he is enthusiastic about several specific outcomes of the center. The first is the number of women engineers the center is educating. Of the 54 students currently enrolled in the graduate certificate program, impressively, 46 percent are women.

Second is the number of students from around the country who are drawn to what the Mortenson Center offers. “Many students have shared with us that they chose the University of Colorado because of the Mortenson Center,” he says.

Third is the application of the center’s work in the United States, such as through the center’s partnership with the Crow Tribe, which is using locally produced earthen blocks to build energy efficient homes that withstand the Montana climate, are safe and affordable, and increase employment of tribal members. “It's amazing that a bit of locally sourced clay and sand mixed with Mortenson Center engineering can create such a positive impact,” Mortenson says.

Lastly, Mortenson says he is inspired by the number of dedicated engineers who want to serve others with their tangible skills. Mort states, “During their time at the Mortenson Center, the students solve problems, provide real service and make many lives better. Many students have shared with me how pleased they are to find a way to match their passion with their future careers in a socially relevant way.” Alice adds, “These students are bright, energetic, caring, and enthusiastic. They are going to do great things.”

“Upon graduation, this army of engineers will exponentially grow the number of solutions to problems in partnership with communities around the world,” Mort concludes.•

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