Engineering a better world: Students apply their knowledge through philanthropic groups

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

By Polly Ouellette, College of Engineering

In a small neighborhood in Nicaragua, numerous women and children die from smoke exposure in their homes every year. The combination of the open flames of their stoves and poor ventilation in kitchens exposes families to harmful substances as they breathe in carbon monoxide and other particles. Tech students have done what other organizations have tried and failed to do: they designed a cook stove that is cost-effective, sustainable and clean.

Designing safe cook stoves is just one of many projects engineered by Georgia Tech students who apply their academic and leadership training to solve real world problems. From devising solar-powered wells in Uganda to optimizing water filter production systems to refurbishing medical equipment, young engineers who want to better their world can find dozens of ways to do it. Armed with technical knowledge and the unique perspective of an engineer, some young men and women are determined to put their learning background into practice for humanitarian use.

Engineers Without Borders

As part of an international organization, the Georgia Tech chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) leverages the knowledge of professional engineers around the world and on campus to put sustainable engineering to work to empower communities. Tech’s chapter is doing so in places such as Jamaica, Nicaragua, Uganda and Atlanta’s very own west side.

Oloo, Uganda, community members stand with the water pump that Engineers Without Borders has helped them construct.
Oloo, Uganda, community members stand with the water pump that Engineers Without Borders has helped them construct. Once the project wraps in a few years, residents of Oloo will have five kilometers of water distribution pipeline and five tap stands for water retrieval. (Photo Courtesy: Engineers Without Borders)
 

Each EWB project involves at least five years of partnership with a community in need, many different design phases and implementation trips during which students travel to the community in order to put their solutions into action. The community that is being aided is actively involved in the project and provides some of the resources and labor needed to make the project a reality.

The first step to helping a community in need is assessment, which is done by professional engineers from the national EWB organization. These professionals work with Tech students to determine what the most pressing issue in the given area is and how to alleviate it.

For example, one town in Uganda called Oloo was suffering from water shortages. Surface-level water sources were contaminated with diseases, and existing wells were shallow and dried up periodically. An EWB team from Georgia Tech has made it their mission to help this community get clean and accessible water.

This team, as well as many of the others, has been challenged to find the sweet spot between providing resources for the community and empowering individuals to take charge and help themselves.

“Our mentors work really closely with us for each implementation trip both before and after each implementation trip, doing all these calculations, and doing a general assessment of how we should be working with the community. Having different professional engineers behind us and giving us the support and knowledge that we need for all the different components of the project is super helpful.”

– Akhil Chavin, fourth-year civil engineering students and technical director of the Engineers Without Borders group working in Oloo, Uganda.

“It’s hard because you can see that they’re willing to put in the time and effort and work for it, but sometimes they can’t contribute monetarily,” said Ashley Maynard, the project’s leader and a fourth-year civil engineer. “So what’s the balance? What’s our role? How do we emphasize sustainability?”

After several design iterations, each of which kept sustainability top of mind, the team finally began taking action in Uganda. They have traveled there for three implementation trips so far: one to dig a well, another to install a solar-powered pump on the well, and finally to begin constructing a water distribution system. The team still has a lot of work to do, and their next undertaking might be their biggest yet — constructing a water tower that will store 36,000 liters of water. When designing these components of the water source distribution system, the team was actually able to use skills that they learned in the engineering classroom.

“To start with, we’ve been doing a lot of different analysis on the foundation of the tower and structural capacity,” said Akhil Chavin, technical director of the group working in Oloo and fourth-year civil engineer. “Much that we learned in deformable bodies or even statics have been extremely applicable.”

Each project team is composed of finance, communications, and technical subgroups and an executive leadership team. EWB also pairs each team with mentors who help with whatever the students need, such as technical calculations, planning, advisement, and sign off on each design.

“Our mentors work really closely with us for each implementation trip both before and after each implementation trip, doing all these calculations, and doing a general assessment of how we should be working with the community,” said Chavin. “Having different professional engineers behind us and giving us the support and knowledge that we need for all the different components of the project is super helpful.”

The team working in Uganda, just like many others all over the world, has faced some bumps in the road as their journey has progressed. Uganda has faced inflation and political unrest, as well as other roadblocks that have impeded the progression of the project. The diverse collection of students with different majors and skill sets on each team has allowed them to confront each hurdle as it comes.

“It’s neat to see just the different minds working together,” said Maynard. “It’s important to problem-solve and figure it out outside of the classroom, so we can work together to make it possible.”

This particular project will wrap up after a few more trips to Oloo and will conclude with five kilometers of water distribution pipeline and five tap stands for water retrieval. The community is primed to benefit from the EWB project for years to come.

Engineering World Health

It is hard to imagine a world in which latex gloves used for medical procedures are so scarce that instead of using a new pair, doctors are forced to wash them out and hang them up to dry for reuse. But this is the reality of healthcare in places that do not have the resources to buy adequate supplies.

Fortunately, there is a surplus of such supplies in the United States. In fact, over $6.25 billion worth of medical equipment is discarded every year in our country. That’s why Engineering World Health (EWH), an international student organization with a chapter on Tech’s campus, is working to bring awareness and sustainable solutions to the global inequities in healthcare in the developing world.

Students in EWH at Tech, many of whom are biomedical engineering majors, partner with a company called MedShare to do their part to decrease healthcare inequities. MedShare is a humanitarian aid organization that receives donations of surplus medical supplies from hospitals and other facilities around Atlanta.

Volunteers such as EWH students, who visit MedShare once a month, come to MedShare’s warehouse to aid in repairing, calibrating and refurbishing medical devices.

Volunteers with Engineering World Health test a blood-pressure cuff before it is shipped to a community in need.
Volunteers with Engineering World Health test a blood-pressure cuff. The group has partnered with MedShare to help repair, refurbish and calibrate medical devices that will be shipped to a community in the developing world that needs the equipment. (Photo Courtesy: Engineering World Health)
 

“We'll go there to their site as a group of volunteers with an engineering mindset and an interest in how these devices work,” said Winston Wu, student president of Tech’s EWH chapter and fourth-year biomedical engineer. “The engineers there will help us understand a little bit about how the devices work, and we'll troubleshoot and make sure that they are good to go. Then the engineers will send the newly working devices and medical supplies off to countries or even local facilities that need it more than these companies who just discard it.”

EWH members visit their partner for repair sessions on a monthly basis, and the organization occasionally recruits more students to come and help out for events like the recent TEAM Buzz, which is a campus-wide philanthropic day of service. During this year’s TEAM Buzz repair session, students packaged and repaired supplies that would go to countries all over the world, including Puerto Rico in order to help with hurricane relief.

“If I've learned something in class that is maybe similar to a device that I might be working on in Engineering World Health with Medshare, I try to connect the dots and see how they can both apply to each other.”

– Winston Wu, president of Tech’s Engineering World Health chapter and a fourth-year biomedical engineering student

Each shipment of medical devices is sent out in 40-foot containers and should provide two years’ worth of supplies for the community that receives it. Professional engineers from MedShare accompany the shipments and teach communities how to properly use and take care of the devices.

Since EWH began at Tech in 1999, students have been committed to working hard to improve the healthcare of those less fortunate than themselves.

“The BMEs are just so socially conscious,” said Terry Blum, the faculty advisor for EWH at Tech and director of the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship. “In that field, it’s bred into them to begin with. It’s in their DNA.”

The work that these students do with MedShare satisfies their drive for helping others and allows them to gain hands-on experience with devices that isn’t possible in a classroom setting.

“If I've learned something in class that is maybe similar to a device that I might be working on in Engineering World Health with Medshare, I try to connect the dots and see how they can both apply to each other,” said Wu.

For biomedical engineers and many others, Engineering World Health provides a tangible way for students to apply their knowledge for the greater good.

Engineering for Social Innovation

Some students know exactly how they want to change the world. Others just know that a little piece of their heart lies with those who are less fortunate.

Joyelle Harris knows exactly what to do with these students. She is the proud founder of the Engineering for Social Innovation Center (ESI, or the Center) and academic faculty in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“I want to give every student on campus the opportunity to use their skill set for social impact, and that opportunity comes in different ways,” said Harris. “The center is a way for me to create a clearinghouse, a hub for social impact opportunities for students.”

The Center provides many different opportunities for philanthropically-minded students to get involved with ways they might be able to help those in need. The Center sponsors Vertically Integrated Project teams, Grand Challenges Scholars, various undergraduate researchers, Capstone Senior Design teams, and regular students who have big ideas about changing the world.

Harris herself is the teacher of a Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) course, in which students can use their engineering skills to create real impacts in international communities.

Engineering for Social Innovation students work to create a prototype of the shoe they’ve designed.
Engineering for Social Innovation students work to create a prototype of a shoe they’ve designed made from only cardboard and cloth. The shoes were created specifically for a tribe in Kenya to protect against insects that burrow into the skin of their feet and make walking nearly impossible. (Photo Courtesy: Engineering for Social Innovation)
 

One project led by Harris focuses on designing and building a generator for a factory in Tanzania that creates desperately-needed water filters and more reliable methods for creating them. Another is a study that examines the logistics of transporting and distributing water throughout a nomadic community in Marsibat, Kenya, in which people sometimes have to walk up to eight hours to get water during extreme drought. The students have struggled against helping a country that is “on the other side of the digital divide,” said Harris, as they require a distribution system that doesn’t need advanced technology to operate. Students are having to think outside the box to come up with non-digital solutions.

Harris has another group of students that she has allowed to have some free rein; the students scope out an area that they are interested in, and come up with a plan for how they want to impact that community.

Nikki Lewis, a student in the ESI center and a fifth-year industrial engineering student, jumped at the chance to work with a community that she was already passionate about: local Hispanic children in the United States who are trying to learn English. The Hope Community Center teaches English to young kids from low-income families whose parents don’t speak English.

“I want to give every student on campus the opportunity to use their skill set for social impact, and that opportunity comes in different ways. The [Engineering for Social Innovation Center] is a way for me to create a clearinghouse, a hub for social impact opportunities for students.”

– Joyelle Harris, founder of the Engineering for Social Innovation Center

Lewis uses financial and industrial engineering skills to come up with a more sustainable business model for the Hope Community Center. The organization needs help optimizing their revenue, tracking volunteers, and creating a better website. Working with them allows Lewis to combine her love for the Spanish language with her technical skill and desire to help other people, especially children.

In another project through ESI, Lewis worked to create a sustainable design for shoes that could be manufactured with only cardboard and cloth. These shoes were created specifically for a tribe in Kenya in order to protect against insects that would burrow into the skin of their feet and make walking nearly impossible. Lewis enjoyed collaborating with her teammates and going through multiple iterations of the shoe design in order to optimize durability, functionality and sustainability.

"I think a lot of times it is hard for students to see how they can use their engineering skills to make an impact,” said Lewis. “I am really empathetic towards people that are in situations where they don’t have any control.”

Harris agrees that for recently-graduated engineers, it can be tricky to figure out just what to do with their newly gained knowledge. She spoke about her “aha” moment, when she realized that she wanted to do something bigger and better than have a corporate job.

“I was sitting on the phone in a meeting that had been going on for a very long time. It was about a copper line that was two microns too big,” Harris said. “That’s when I realized I need to leave. I need to find something I care about. I thought, ‘I know that I’m not going to excel here, I’m not going grow.’ I want my students to see how their actions impact the big picture.”