Local Rowan student helps bring advances to developing countries
Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., has long been known as an excellent school for teachers, but future educator Laura Thrall has already made a difference that most aspiring teachers can only dream of making. The 22-year-old from Matawan started out her career at Rowan as an engineering major. Though she now plans to pursue teaching elementary school math, Thrall has had some valuable experiences with the University’s College of Engineering. Especially important has been her time with service organizations Engineers Without BordersTM and its newer counterpart, Engineering Innovators Without Borders (EIWB).
Dr. Beena Sukumaran, chair of Civil & Environmental Engineering, informally started EIWB in 2009. Sukumaran and a handful of other engineering professors are working with students like Thrall to conceive, create and test products that may make life easier and safer in developing countries. EIWB plans to give the rights to the finished products away so that those in developing countries – whether individuals, villages or non-governmental organizations – can build their version of the Rowan design and better gather food, work the land and/or earn an income.
Thrall’s project, for example, is the development of an improved rope-operated water pump that can be used to retrieve water from wells. Thrall worked on this project with two faculty advisors, professor of civil and environmental engineering Dr. Jess Everett and associate professor of mechanical engineering Dr. Jennifer Kadlowec, and a team that brought together students from each engineering program. The team plans to test the product in South America and The Gambia in Africa.
Dating back about 2,000 years, rope pumps are simple devices that operate through mechanical means. Washers are attached to a rope at intervals and pulled through a pipe, acting as pistons to draw water upwards. While the rope pumps were upgraded in the 1970s, they still are imperfect.
“We’re looking at three things,” Everett said. “Can they be made more inexpensively? Can they be made so they are easier for local people to repair? And can we make them so they can get water from deeper depths?”
The Rowan Venture Capital Fund has contributed $2,500 to the project, which Everett said has the potential to have a big impact.
“Water is a huge issue. There are still more than a billion people who have difficulty getting water,” he said. “If we develop a better rope pump, it’s going to get used. It’s exciting to think it could make a difference throughout the world.”
The rope pump isn’t the organization’s only current project. Teams are also working on a simple grain crusher, a device to help villagers climb trees more safely and a method of crushing peanut shells to create a fuel source.
The grain crusher project has been going on for quite some time. Even before Sukumaran started EIWB, she and several teams of students worked for a couple of years to craft pedal-powered and hand-powered grain crushers that could be used by villagers to help them process food and possibly earn money.
Last year, she and student Kevin McGarvey took two versions of the grain crusher to southern India for feedback from villagers and met with representatives of the India-based Dhan Foundation, which tries to find local partners to help develop innovative projects for the poor. Based on that trip, the Rowan group decided to scale the crushers up so they can process larger quantities of food and reconfigure the devices so they can handle a two-stage process, de-husking and grinding grains.
Rohrer College of Business associate professor Dr. Michael Banutu-Gomez also brought the team’s grain crusher to The Gambia, his homeland, to be tested by locals and evaluated by Peace Corps volunteers and a technical school in fall 2009. After more refining, the team will send the grain crusher back to The Gambia. Eventually, Sukumaran hopes individuals in the developing countries will be able to replicate the machine.
Sukumaran also oversaw the work on a second project, the tree climber. She and another team of students have designed the device, which coconut harvesters can use to more safely scale heights to obtain food. The tree climber is constructed entirely of steel, the easiest metal to obtain in developing countries, Sukumaran said. Students designed the device, analyzed it and even tested it outside on thin trees behind the College of Engineering building. They plan to take it on a future Engineers Without Borders trip to further test it. The College of Engineering provided funding for both of Sukumaran’s projects.
It was Sukumaran’s colleagues Everett and associate professor of mechanical engineering Dr. Hong Zhang who developed the clinic project that focuses on compressing peanut shells into briquettes that can be used as a cooking fuel. In 2009, a group of sophomores, enrolled in an engineering clinic class focused on communication skills, wrote the proposal to design the briquettes. A semester later a junior engineering student worked some more on the proposal with Everett. They submitted it to the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) program operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which funded the project with a $10,000 grant.
Engineering Innovators helps Rowan students build their own skills while they are assisting people half a world away. Teams keep designs simple and ensure they are composed of materials that can be readily found in developing countries and are relatively simple to maintain and/or repair. The devices are not moneymakers, at least not for the engineers creating them.
“The main mission of EIWB is to redesign and develop devices that have market potential and will improve the quality of life in developing countries, while providing entrepreneurial opportunities,” Sukumaran said. “In addition, these devices have to be economically and socially sustainable and produced using locally available materials.”
She added, “This has been done utilizing multidisciplinary engineering student teams and has been successfully implemented through… junior and senior engineering clinics at Rowan University. The students gain a valuable perspective on designing engineering products for developing countries, including cultural and economic considerations, sustainability and material and resource availability.”
To Thrall, this perspective has been one of the most memorable parts of her experiences with EWB and EIWB. While on an EWB trip to The Gambia to help with a road repair project, Thrall’s team first began considering the rope pumps project. “Meeting the people who we were working with was an amazing experience,” Thrall said. “I will never forget their gratitude!”
The villagers are unlikely to forget this experience, too. The help EIWB has provided to these areas is not a one-time gift but the tools and knowledge to improve their lives consistently.
“We’re willing to give villagers and non-profit groups the designs, and they will generate business opportunities for themselves,” said Sukumaran, who hopes to help other colleges and universities start their own Engineering Innovators Without Borders chapters.