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Fighting Poverty

Engineering the fight against world poverty

View the latest issue of SmullTalk for more stories
from the T.J. Smull College of Engineering.

Some engineering students dream of designing a flying car or the next-generation iPod and earning tons of money. Yet a growing number of students have set their sights, and ingenuity, on helping millions of people worldwide climb out of poverty.

In spring 2011, Joshua Bryan and his fellow freshman engineering students put their heads together in a classroom in Ada, Ohio, and tried to imagine life in a Third World country. “What simple, cheap-to-make invention could change lives?” they pondered. In small teams, they designed a wide range of innovative products, including a manual water pump, efficient cook stove and gravity-powered irrigation system.

Just a few weeks later, Bryan found himself in a rural region of the Dominican Republic, putting one team’s invention to the test. Surrounded by a crowd of excited villagers, he demonstrated a way to turn paper and plant waste into an alternative fuel source using a portable compactor made from a PVC pipe. For one week, he traveled from village to village, gaining new perspectives on the engineering process as well as different cultures.

A civil engineering major from Coraopolis, Pa., Bryan represents a growing number of students interested in using their engineering knowledge to benefit the roughly 90 percent of people on Earth who live in absolute poverty.

“I was so excited that Ohio Northern enabled me to turn my field of study into an opportunity to help others and travel internationally,” he says. “From this one trip, I learned that simple solutions could have huge impacts.”

A well-rounded engineering education should raise awareness of both issues and opportunities around the globe, says Dr. Ken Reid, director of first-year engineering and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “All too often, students arrive at college with visions of designing that which is at the forefront of technology: a faster car, a longer bridge or the next generation iPod. But what about the needs of more than two billion people in the world’s population who live on less than $2 a day?”

ONU’s first-year engineering curriculum includes a cornerstone project in which students design a product for people in a specified Third World country who lack the means to purchase even the most basic goods. The products could help people earn their way out of poverty or simply help them to spend less time, money and effort on the necessities of life. Each team must document their engineering-design process with regular written reports and an oral presentation and develop a functional prototype.

Until recently, however, the students’ prototypes never made it out of the classroom. Now, students have the chance to take their inventions, and learning, out into the field.

A new student group is developing on campus, one that focuses on applying student knowledge, education and training to benefit global communities. It’s evolving from Freshmen Without Borders, an informal group of freshmen who wanted to implement their cornerstone projects. The new group, open to all grade levels, may apply to become  a student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a national organization with more than 12,000 members and 250 chapters.

The group received encouragement from Dr. Paul Polak, author of the book Out of Poverty and the speaker for ONU’s 2011 Spotts Lecture. Polak, a visionary and founder of the Colorado-based nonprofit organization International Development Enterprises, views poor people as potential entrepreneurs and customers.

When he visited campus in March 2011, he warned ONU students against a “drop and run” mentality. Americans, he explained, tend to swoop into Third World countries with donations and new products that ultimately prove unsustainable. He encouraged students to create sustainable designs by taking the time to truly understand the people, the market and the needs.

Katie Bowman, a sophomore civil engineering major from Richfield, Ohio, is the vice president of the emerging student group. Her trip to the Dominican Republic in summer 2011 inspired her to undertake an independent study project to design a composting latrine.

During her freshman year, she and her cornerstone team created a basic composting toilet but never imagined their invention would get wings. In the Dominican Republic, she encountered Father Christian, an energetic pastor who has constructed almost 500 latrines in mountain villages in an effort to prevent the spread of cholera. “God has brought us together,” Father Christian exclaimed excitedly when the ONU students explained their idea for a toilet that would turn human waste into fertilizer.

Bowman, along with Reid and four other students, spent an entire day tagging along with Father Christian and watching latrines being constructed from wood and a concrete-like substance. Bowman gathered valuable field data that she and her team have used this past year to modify and test their composting toilet design. They hope to return to the Dominican Republic in 2012 to
attempt implementation of their product.

“It was so interesting to learn firsthand instead of just being taught in class and out of books,” says Bowman. “I learned that different needs are found in different places. Even if something doesn’t work in one place, it may be an amazing fit somewhere else. I also learned there are many problems and situations that you run into that are hard to avoid and overcome. Implementation can be tricky for complicated projects, especially when designing and testing occurs hundreds or thousands of miles away.”

Reid witnessed the students taking control of their own learning while in the Dominican Republic. “The personal growth that takes lace is just incredible,” he says. “Students are taking the initiative and becoming leaders. They are learning about different cultures and different ways of doing things.”

ONU engineering students will have more opportunities in the future to learn and grow as engineers while reaching out to people in need. “Engineers can make a difference in the lives of others – not just one person at a time, but hundreds, thousands or even millions – through the thoughtful development of just a single well-designed project,” says Reid.