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 FEATURES

BY MARK MATTHEWS
ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHEN ROUNTREE www.stephenrountree.com

FEATURE: TEAMING WITH IDEAS - ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHEN ROUNTREE www.stephenrountree.comTEAMING WITH IDEAS

Engineering students go global, designing solutions while competing for cash.


Dorisel Torres almost left engineering behind when she began graduate studies in soil science at Cornell and plunged into research on biochar. This high-carbon, low-ash black dust, the result of incinerating plant waste, has the potential to boost crop yield in poor countries where farmers can’t afford fertilizer. It also traps carbon dioxide, helping to curb climate change. And because it can be made from all manner of organic material, it spares forests. But when Torres asked, “How do you expect farmers to get biochar?” no one had an answer. So she set out to find one, resurrecting skills acquired as a chemical engineering major at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

That simple but crucial question “how?” captures what drives Torres and other contestants in the biennial Mondialogo Engineering Award competition. From looking for ways to stop sewage floods in an urban slum to bringing modern diagnostic techniques to rural clinics, these young competitors strive to design functional, environmentally friendly solutions to pressing problems in some of the world’s poorest regions.

Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the German automaker Daimler, the contest aims to nurture cross-cultural collaboration. It requires student teams from developed countries, like the United States, Britain, Germany, and Singapore, to join with teams from developing countries, mostly in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Part Facebook, part distance-learning challenge, and part cultural leveler, Mondialogo also serves as an international virtual meeting ground for the technologically inclined.

The first two competitions in 2005 and 2007 inspired such inventions as a modular design for a simple but sturdy bridge to help rural Rwandans cross fast-moving highland rivers; a scheme to control toxic leachate at a 50-acre dump in Manila; a robotic aerial vehicle to scout land mines in war-torn southern Lebanon; and polypropylene wall inserts to earthquake-proof existing homes in Nepal.

Global Teams

Problem solving by fax, E-mail, and Skype across multiple time zones inevitably tests students’ patience and sensitivity. Team members often must communicate in a non-native language and cope with vast disparities in school facilities and equipment. But teams that succeed can win up to 15,000 euros (about U.S. $19,200). Moreover, as judge Shirley Malcom points out, they can become “a different kind of engineer,” adept at using science and technology in “fairly low-level but elegant ways” to meet human needs.

Through Mondialogo, Torres’s search for a farmer-friendly way to produce biochar now touches four continents. She teamed up with Robert Bachmann, a German- and British-trained environmental engineer, and his team of Malaysian students at the University of Kuala Lumpur. They had previously used the carbonized biomass waste for a different purpose: removing dyes and heavy metals from industrial effluent. The team has also been joined by students from the Eritrean Institute of Technology, Eritrea, and from Wismar University in Germany. Sharing design ideas with her teammates via the Internet, Torres has developed a gasifier, a stove that both pyrolyzes plant waste – heating it at 300 to 700 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen – and causes the biomass gases to ignite, producing heat for cooking. In January, she set out for Kenya to test two gasifier prototypes – one metal and the other clay – with a group of farmers. “The next step is to refine the design itself,” Torres said before her trip. “I want to make sure it’s safe for the user.” Other team members plan to produce biochar with their own newly designed stove-gasifiers, and then measure how well the biochar improves crop growth in both Malaysia and Eritrea.

But theirs isn’t the most ambitious of this year’s Mondialogo entries. That distinction may belong to a proposal from Beijing’s Tsinghua University. In student Qun Xie’s words, it aims at nothing less than “to mitigate the negative impacts of the Three Gorges Dam,” China’s gigantic hydropower and reservoir project. Qun, a Harry Potter fan whose Mondialogo face page shows him on the Great Wall, hands upraised in happiness, is joined in what he calls “this perfect team” by Tony Pereira, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, and students in Russia, the Netherlands, and Texas. Their multi-pronged proposal includes a research station near Three Gorges for long-term monitoring of plant and animal life, satellite measurement of water quality, collection of solid waste by ship, and compost toilets and wastewater treatment that won’t pollute the reservoir.

Pereira — who goes by the moniker “solartony” on Mondialogo forum and chat sites — has been a sought-after mentor since winning a 2007 prize. A passionate environmentalist, he reworked Qun’s project description into a sharp critique of Three Gorges, citing “massive population and livelihood displacement, massive deforestation.” In a separate project, Pereira is collaborating with Jean Claude Sabushimike of Burundi to design ways of using the plentiful rainfall in the upcountry hills of the central African nation to irrigate the drought-parched farms farther south. Elsewhere in Africa, Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Tish Scolnick has teamed up with Joseph Kisyoky at the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology to adapt her cheap, easy-to-manufacture wheelchair design for use by disabled entrepreneurs in Tanzania.

Mondialogo (a name combining the French word for “world-wide” and “dialogue”) grew out of a meeting of the minds between officials at Daimler and Tony Marjoram, a Paris-based engineering specialist at UNESCO’s Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences. Daimler wanted to encourage global engineering education. As Stefan Bernhart, who handles corporate sponsorship for the Mercedes manufacturer, explains: “Daimler is an engineering company. We live from the innovations of engineers. Second, we’re an international company. We know how important it is to have a diverse workforce and work with international teams.” UNESCO was interested in promoting the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals: ending poverty and hunger, ensuring universal education and environmental sustainability, and combating HIV and AIDS. Both wanted to get young people involved. A separate Mondialogo competition is sponsored by the International Olympic Committee for high school students.

Contestants enroll on the Mondialogo website, choose one or more engineering categories — such as housing, transportation, or energy — then propose a project, soliciting team members from another country. They can also seek out partners on a forum or face page before outlining their project. Sometimes students with similar projects decide to team up. Once a team from two or more countries forms, it has four months to complete a project design.

Contestants have teamed up to develop a land-mine-seeking unmanned aerial vehicle, above, and craft the frame of a water tank, at right.

Gürcan Gürses of Turkey posted “partner needed!!” on the Mondialogo forum site just 48 hours before the current competition’s Dec. 31, 2008, deadline. His project to develop a ceramic filter that acts like a polymer sponge but yields no toxic substances in manufacture is moving ahead. Many other contestants, however, were unable to form partnerships in time, despite sometimes plaintive appeals. Of 900 proposals posted, just 179 resulted in dual-country partnerships. Sixty involved U.S. colleges, a proportion that some participants think could be expanded with more publicity and faculty encouragement. Judging from the names of contestants from the developed world, quite a few seem to be natives of the same developing nations as their teammates, indicating that Mondialogo has yet to realize its full potential as a cross-cultural force. Yet, says Paul Jowitt, an engineering professor at Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, who serves as a judge, “I’m not sure Mondialogo would want to set up some complex rules to ensure that the partnerships that form are genuinely nationally distinct.”

Diverse matchups have formed. Six University of Utah students joined three from Birzeit University in the West Bank on a prizewinning project using anaerobic fermentation to treat and reuse wastewater from olive processing. “They were ‘buds,’” remarks Malcom, who heads the directorate for education and human resource programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Some students, she says, “learned as much about each other’s countries as they did about engineering.” She has also noticed a higher proportion of women participants than is typically found in engineering.

Implementation?

In mid-2009, an international jury of engineers and scientists will select a total of 30 gold, silver, or bronze award winners, based on projects’ quality, feasibility, innovativeness and presentation, adherence to millennium goals, and potential effect on climate change. Judges also look for balanced participation, without one portion of the team doing all the work. Winners get an expense-paid trip to collect their prizes; and for many, it will be their first chance to meet their overseas partners in the flesh. This year, the award money will total 300,000 euros.

Mondialogo encourages winners to use their prize money to implement their projects, and a number of them have. One is a team that included Dan Nover, then a Michigan Technological University graduate student and Peace Corps volunteer. Its winning 2005 design for water tanks in the Philippines substituted natural pozzolans, made of locally available volcanic ash and rice husk ash, for greenhouse gas-emitting Portland cement. A number of tanks have been built, filling a need in a community lacking safe drinking water. In Malaysia, students from Cambridge University and University Malaysia Sarawak erected a solar-power system that enabled a remote Internet station on Borneo to expand, aiding the local economy.

But Mondialogo neither requires nor supervises implementation, something that would require a different and much bigger operation. So once the awards are bestowed, projects must compete with other events in students’ busy lives. Judge Ali Uddin Ansari, a professor of mechanical engineering at India’s Muffakham Jah College of Engineering and Technology, notes ruefully that most of his students “are very focused on finding a job.” Still, just in fostering cross-cultural collaboration, Mondialogo has carved a niche for itself, says Nover’s adviser James R. Mihelcic, now a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern Florida. “I don’t know of any other opportunity that is so informal.”

Mondialogo TV YouTube Channel

Mondialogo School Contest - YouTube Playlist

Mondialogo Engineering Award - YouTube Playlist

Mark Matthews is the managing editor of Prism.

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