Dan Simpson awarded Robert Hope Memorial Prize for work in sustainability, international projects

When Dan Simpson began his studies at the University of Wollongong, he decided to take a simple approach to the opportunities that came his way: he would say yes to each and every one.

It was a decision that would prove a success for the Bachelor of Engineering student. For the past five years, Dan’s life has been filled with community work, extracurricular activities, and travel.

“For that first year at uni, I just said yes to everything,” said Dan, who today (Wednesday 13 December) graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering, majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and minoring in International Studies.

“I just wanted to meet as many people as possible and take advantage of every opportunity.”

Dan was awarded UOW’s most prestigious honour for students, the Robert Hope Memorial Prize. The medal celebrates the life and contribution of the University’s founding Chancellor, Robert Hope.

It is awarded to a student who demonstrates exceptional academic performance, outstanding leadership, and a significant contribution to the University and/or the wider community.

Recipients receive the Robert Hope Medal and $7000, as well as $3000 donated to a charity or community organisation of their choice.

“Across the broad spectrum of initiatives I have been involved with, both inside the University and the wider community, all the people I have surrounded myself with have been nothing but inspirational and influential on my journey, and this award is as much theirs as it is mine,” Dan said.

“Receiving this award alongside my bachelor degree is undoubtedly my proudest achievement to date.”

The medal is a fitting honour for Dan, who has had a significant impact at UOW in the past five years.

In his second year of study, Dan joined a team of students and engineers travelling to Indonesia as part of the PetaJakarta project, which used social media to map flooding danger zones in the Indonesian capital.

“Being on the ground and being exposed to the way these real-world problems impact on people’s life was an amazing experience,” Dan said. “It’s one thing to read about it in a textbook, but meeting with residents and interviewing them about their experiences, that’s when it really hits home.”

Just a few years later, Dan was part of a team of students studying a pilot subject in Engineering Management in Developing Nations.

The subject took the class to a rural community in Rwanda (pictured), where they worked with villagers to create and build a water supply system. The mountainous topography of the small African nation provided the students with an insight into the conditions locals faced when collecting water. Every day, villagers would climb kilometres down steep inclines to collect water of substandard quality. The students took the same routes during their visit to the village, an experience Dan said was exhausting and eye-opening.

“Rwanda is an incredibly hilly country and many of the villages are built at the crest of the hills,” Dan said. “The villagers would go up and down these huge hills to collect water. It was kilometres up an incredibly steep incline.

“We wanted to create a tangible, practical and sustainable system that would provide the community with water for years to come. We were very mindful of engaging with the locals to create a system that would work for them. So far, it has survived almost two monsoon seasons, so it looks like it will stand the test of time.”

For Dan, this is what engineering is about: combining his passion for building with his desire to make a difference in the world.

Hailing from Central Tilba, on the NSW Far South Coast, Dan grew up surrounded by the bush at the base of Mount Dromedary. His love for the natural environment – he is an avid surfer, fisherman, diver, hiker – has inspired his desire to forge a life that has minimal impact on the environment.

“Growing up in Narooma, it really made me appreciate the beauty of the natural environment,” said Dan.

“Sustainability and renewable energy are two things I am really passionate about. We need to look after our environment and we need to do something about the impact we are having on our planet. Engineers are the ones who design and construct our infrastructure, so we are the ones who can really make an impact.”

As a Young Sustainability Ambassador, Dan has been visiting local schools to speak to students about how everyone can have a positive impact on the world through big and even small sustainable actions.

He is also heavily involved in the 2018 UOW Solar Decathlon project, which sees a student-led team design and construct a solar-powered house built of sustainable materials.

Dan is overseeing the water supply system on the Desert Rose, Team UOW’s entry into next year’s competition in Dubai.

In addition to being sustainable, the house will also be dementia-friendly, adapting to the changing needs to elderly residents.

“This project is the epitome of why people sign up to engineering because it has a real-world impact,” Dan said. “I am stoked to be able to play a role in the Desert Rose and I have learnt so many new skills that will assist me in the future.”

Dan is still in awe of the opportunities that have opened up since he came to UOW. His passport has been an essential tool.

Dan, who is also a UOW Student Representative, undertook a semester of study abroad at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and was also invited to participate in the United Nations Sustainability and Environment Conference in China.

He said the extensive travel he has taken – all part of his studies – has been one of the highlights of his time at UOW.

“When I visit schools as a UOW representative, students often tell me that they want to take a gap year after high school so they can travel. I tell them that if they want to travel, UOW is the place to be,” Dan said.

Next year, he is hoping to pursue more of what he calls “travel with a purpose” – seeing the world while making a difference – along with more volunteering and work on the projects he is passionate about, such as teaching young students about sustainability and combating food waste through the group, Hidden Harvest.

“I’m a big believer in the ripple effect, so I think that if we can spread the message of sustainability to young kids, they go and tell their parents, who tell their friends, and it slowly ripples through society,” he said.

“I’m really looking forward to taking a bit of time off, reflecting on where exactly I want to take my career. I want to keep volunteering, continuing my work on engineering projects like the Desert Rose, and seeing what the next year brings.”

Words by India Glyde. Originally published on UOW newsroom