When words, not math, are the secret to engineering

April 22, 2014 •

While civil engineering centers on the design and construction of physical environments, Jordan Burns specializes in a critical part of the discipline that isn’t often recognized—communication.

“I’m not an engineer who can just sit and do math. I like to interact with people,” said the junior civil engineering major, who is also president of the CU-Boulder chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA CU).

Her interest in communication stems from her identification with the people she’s working for. “I see people like myself get stressed out about how daunting engineering looks to people who want to fix problems and I want to help them,” she said.

As such, her focus is less on designing buildings, and more on outreach and conveying the processes that EWB uses in its projects. Those aspects include writing system operations manuals, interfacing with users to relay project plans, getting feedback from users and monitoring outcomes after implementation.

“If you aren’t communicating effectively before a project occurs and after, it’s not going to be successful,” Burns said.

Her skills were put to the test two summers ago when an EWB project to build a school for orphans near Kigali, Rwanda had to be canceled. Her project team had been pulling all-nighters to design and plan the school, but during an assessment trip to the site they learned that the $300,000 price tag for the school was not feasible.

“We couldn’t fundraise that much for it and they couldn’t afford it,” said Burns, who was asked to break the news to the orphanage directors. “It’s not an easy phone call to make when, on the other line, you know 200 kids aren’t going to have a school.”

At home, she had to communicate the disappointing situation to her team. “It wasn’t worth getting stressed out about a project that wasn’t going to happen,” Burns said. It was the first time she realized how influential her decisions could be.

Despite the setback, the project team stayed together, and Jordan’s leadership, communication and critical judgment skills earned her a place as project manager for the Rwanda team.

In addition to her contributions to EWB, Burns has accumulated numerous academic honors during her CU career. A Norlin scholar, she has studied abroad in Tanzania and serves as a peer mentor promoting international service for the Engineering Honors Program.

Burns’ accomplishments recently caught the attention of the Truman Foundation, which awarded her the prestigious 2014 Truman Scholarship this April. The scholarship, given to 59 students nationally, provides up to $30,000 for graduate study to college juniors who show potential in public service careers. Scholars also receive priority admission to some premier institutions, leadership training, and a summer program that matches scholars with a government organization of their choice.

Coming from a family of Georgetown grads, Burns is considering a graduate degree in the university’s Global Human Development program. This summer, she’ll be laying some of the groundwork required for entrance into the Georgetown program by working as a civil engineering intern for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Burns will follow the construction management process for new healthcare facilities.

She’ll also go back to Rwanda in June, with a fully-financed project ready for implementation. Her team will construct the first three of 12 rain catchment systems developed for use by the disabled population.

“I made it a goal that when I chose a new project for my team we would pick something we could follow through to the end,” Burns said.

She credits much of her success to mentors who helped her navigate the Rwanda projects, apply for the Truman Scholarship, and guide her academic progress.

“They were the ones I was bouncing ideas off of when I was making decisions,” she said. “If you can find mentors like that, it’s hard not to end up with something cool when you graduate.”