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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
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TO THE RESCUE - Engineers use their skills to help solve the problems of the developing world, everything from pedal-powered washing machines to medical devices that help AIDS patients.

By Anna Mulrine
Illustration by Charlie Hill

It was several years ago that Robert Malkin began to feel frustrated. The professor of the practice of biomedical engineering, who also directs the Engineering World Health program at Duke University, had lived in Thailand and knew that hospitals there were “really desperate for technology.” He also knew that his students had the know-how to create devices that would be helpful to the hospitals and their patients. The problem, he says, was that “there was no organization teaming up this need with the talent.” He and the chair of the biomedical engineering department at Temple University lamented the problem at a local bar.

Then, Malkin says, he ran into Amy Smith from Massachusetts Institute of Technology at a conference.

Smith, who has been called a “MacGyver for the Third World” in places like Wired magazine, mentioned that her students were doing great work creating engineering solutions that would be helpful to the world’s poor—but that distribution of those solutions was a challenge. That gave Malkin an idea.

This year, for the first time, engineering students at Duke are teaming up with master’s in business administration advisers to not only develop technology solutions for real problems in the developing world but also come up with business plans to get their creations more widely distributed—inventions that create and modify high-tech devices in ways that make them more useful to the world’s poor. “There are thousands of problems that are relatively tackle-able,” Malkin says. “Not every problem in the developing world is, ‘Let’s find a vaccine for AIDS.’ ”

Across the country, engineering students are increasingly interested in the problems of the developing world, professors say. The $100 laptop program through the Media Lab at MIT has done a great deal to call attention to the ways in which engineers can use their skills to help the world’s poor. And today, engineering students at MIT compete in a program called IDEAS as part of the university’s International Development Initiative. Among their inventions: a battery-powered projector that allows community education centers in Mali to store entire libraries on a single tape and then project the “books” onto walls—“thus allowing people to learn without having to buy multiple books or pay for lighting,” says Alison Hynd, MIT’s IDEAS Competition and Fellowship coordinator. The groups have also come up with pedal-powered washing machines. “They were getting a lot of requests from women spending eight hours a week washing families’ clothes. It’s an enormous labor and time-suck,” Hynd says. They also created a system called DonkeyNet, which makes use of donkeys that travel from village to village in places like China, India and Latin America to serve as mobile access points for Internet connectivity—and in so doing, provided wireless access for rural markets at a fraction of the cost of current alternatives.

Hynd explains that the IDEAS program was created five years ago to give engineering students the chance to expand their conception of community service and to test their skills. “People tend to think of community service as soup kitchens. And these engineering students have so many fabulous skills,” but, she adds, “they weren’t always thinking of applying them to the developing world.” The competition has grown rapidly in popularity, and, with it, engineering students are seeking out more opportunities to help out. Applications for the ideas competition are “twice” what they were last year, Hynd says. “It’s suddenly taken off,” she adds. “There’s lots of interest, and it’s becoming very popular.”

For her part, Mary Lou Jepsen, the chief technology officer for the $100 Laptop Project, says that she has increasingly been struck by the ability of engineers to help better the lives of the poor. She was inspired by the work of Engineers for a Sustainable World and Amy Smith, who devised a way to make clean-burning fuel using high-compacted sugarcane. Smith, who received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT, was also awarded a McArthur Fellowship. Smith’s work, Jepsen says, made her wonder “how I could use my skills to do something with real impact for the world”—and not, she says, design “another HDTV,” as she had been doing between 1998 and 2004. Smith’s work using compacted sugarcane (“which is usually not useful,” Jepsen explains) addressed a leading cause of death for children under 5 worldwide: respiratory diseases from inhaling the usually dirty burning fumes in the kitchen.


A Different Perspective

Regina Clewlow says the role of engineers in bettering lives throughout developing countries is vital. As she was about to join the Peace Corps, Clewlow founded Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) to give engineers, particularly engineering students, a chance to apply their skills to helping the world’s poor. “I had my interviews done and my application in the mail and was waiting to hear about where I’d be placed.” She chose instead to found ESW and in doing so, she says, “I’ve probably been more effective in shaping change by helping to start ESW.” The group “has created a lot more opportunities for engineers to learn about poverty and about sustainable development—and to take direct action to effect change.” Since founding ESW chapters at 30 university campuses across the country, Clewlow says, “I’ll come across professors who went to a lot of these schools, and they’ll say, ‘Man, I wish they had these things when I was a student.’” Clewlow adds that “even though I wasn’t a student all that long ago, there weren’t projects like ours.” Indeed, as organizations like MIT’s Media Lab and ESW proliferate, “we are enabling and engaging engineering students and professors to address the world’s most pressing problems, increasing access to resources in developing communities around the world.”

Engineering students trek across the globe to improve world health. Clockwise from top left: volcano in Costa Rica; students building a battery charger in San Jose, Costa Rica; Nepalese woman filtering arsenic from drinking water; student in Guatemala helping with water purification project; student repairing a ventilator for a hospital in Nicaragua; MIT student working in a lab in Guatemala; a boy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, washes dishes without running water or electricity.

Mary Ollenburger, a senior at California Institute of Technology, says that engineering students today are increasingly searching for ways to apply their skills to problems in the developing world. “There are a ton of things where engineers are needed—and a lot of issues where engineers can be of help,” she says. In a project for the Products Design for Developing Communities class, for which Ollenburger served as the teaching assistant, her ESW group worked with students from a university in Guatemala City to create a tool for removing kernels from dried corn. Equally vital, she says, the Guatemalan engineers and farmers that their group partnered with taught them important elements of engineering design that made the machine more effective. “I think one of the things we found in the class was that it’s not always the technical aspects that are important—it’s also cultural.” With the corn sheller, says Ollenburger, the class learned that corn shelling was a social event for the women of the village. “They get together and do it by hand.” So the group developed a hand-held device, “which would still allow the corn shelling to be a social event but allow them to do it more efficiently.”

Monroe Weber-Shirk, a senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, has worked on developing modifications for a hand-held global positioning satellite (GPS) tool that “will take some of the engineering grunge work” out of surveying for pipelines to carry clean drinking water from distribution tanks. High-tech GPS systems didn’t do the job, and “with traditional surveying tools, there’s a whole crew of Hondurans that must clear through the underbrush so that they can actually have site lines. The time involved in surveying and design would be cut substantially with this tool,” Weber-Shirk says. “We want to make it so that an engineer of surveying can walk a path on a trail where a sewer line will be installed, and with the modified GPS unit, mark all of the houses that will be receiving the water, then take that unit, connect it to the laptop and then very quickly design the entire transmission line and distribution system.”

From Start to Finish

Through organizations like ESW and places like Duke University, the program mainstays are getting engineers out into the community “looking for problems that have technology solutions,” explains Duke’s Malkin. “We felt that we wanted students to be in the field doing primary research, looking for specific people with specific needs.” The students return with “hundreds” of problems that need engineering solutions in the developing world. “Then we have business majors who help develop nonprofit business plans.” As Malkin explains, “We didn’t do this before—we’d go from the problems to the solutions, and then we’d end up with solutions that didn’t go anywhere.” This coming semester, Malkin says, “the business students will not only have a business plan but also a working prototype, as well as primary market research from people in the developing world who have expressed a need for this solution—so there’s really end-to-end coverage.”

For example, students at Cornell recently visited a hospital in Tanzania. Doctors were heartened by the increasing numbers of their AIDS patients who were able to afford generic antiretroviral medications at a cost of $1 a day (as opposed to $30 a day before generic drugs were made available). The problem, however, was the ability of doctors to get what are called CD4 measurements, which give them a count of critical cells in the immune system and allow doctors to adjust the dosages of antiretroviral, “so that the patient receives maximum benefit without having to suffer too many of the side effects. Malkin explains, “In the USA, this is no problem. Doctors use an instrument called a flow cytometer.” But these instruments are far less available—and far too expensive—in the developing world. As a result, “in all of Central America, there’s one. And in all of East Africa, there’s one. It’s also a machine that’s tough to maintain. It breaks down every three or four months.” Again, he adds, in the United States, repairing the machines is easy. In the developing world, “when the nearest repair guy is 3,000 miles away, it’s a different proposition.” The students, Malkin says, decided to “design a cruder measure. They said, ‘OK, let’s figure out the minimum accuracy needed for the doctor to get his measurements.’” What the students came up with, he adds, was admittedly “a much worse instrument—three significant digits to one. But it’s enough for the doctor to do his job. And it’s a much more affordable piece of equipment: $2,000 versus $70,000 for the instrument hospitals were using previously.

Clockwise from TOP left: Repairing a bedside monitor for hospital patients in El Salvador; children in Tanzania; a student in the Duke-Engineering World Health Summer Institute at work; a student repairs a cable for a pulse oximeter at Hospital Zacamil in San Salvador, El Salvador; with dirt streets and a lack of consistent electricity, Bo is the second-largest city in Sierra Leone; students use their engineering skills at Hospital ValezPaiz in Managua, Nicaragua.

Another Duke engineering group tackled the deadly problem of infantile jaundice. In the United States, it’s a condition that’s rarely a big deal, says Malkin. “Both my kids had it, and they put them under these lights,” which break down the buildup of jaundice in the skin. If left untreated, however, jaundice can destroy the liver, and there is a high mortality rate as a result of the condition in the developing world. One of the biggest difficulties hospitals have in treating it, Malkin explains, is the light bulbs. “It’s very difficult to tell whether they’re working or not. The wavelength of light they need are just not in the visible spectrum. It’s UV light, and so, as the light bulbs drift out, they either sunburn the babies, or they just illuminate them so they look bright, but either way they’re not being treated,” he says. In the United States, the light bulbs are tested regularly with a $600 device, “which is no big deal,” adds Malkin, “but in the developing world, that could be their entire equipment budget for the year.” Cornell now has a team that has developed a $2 tester. “It’s a little board the size of my hand,” Malkin says. “You hold it under the bulb, and it lights up green if it’s working and red if it isn’t. We’re going to be manufacturing them by the hundreds and distributing them.”

Jack Fritz, who coordinates the $1 million Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability, through the National Academy of Engineering, hopes that such initiatives prompt long-term commitment on the part of engineers to the developing world. For the prize, they have targeted the problem of arsenic in drinking water. In the search for solutions to rid the water of arsenic, “people have been working on the problem for some time, but nothing has really stuck,” says Fritz, who hopes that the prize “focuses a lot of attention on the problem and brings a lot more players into the game. It’ll be published, there’ll be a press release and there’ll be a lot of hoopla and bragging rights,” he says. “Then I’m hoping that people will pick up on this stuff and run with it”—a hope echoed by the growing legions of engineers now turning their attention to technological challenges throughout the developing world.

Anna Mulrine is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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