Friday, November 27, 2009

Getting an engineering degree in the Peace Corps

The annual report from Michigan Technological University's (MTU) Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics (ME-EM) department ended up on my desk the other day. Since I know a few alums from that department, I took a look inside. No news about my acquaintances, but I found an interesting story about a collaboration between MTU and the Peace Corps and one of the projects undertaken as part of the program.

MTU has the first and only collaboration like this, where a student takes classes on campus (including classes on field engineering and rural development), works a standard Peace Corps tour of duty (training + two years), and then returns to MTU to write a report and give a oral presentation.  Upon completion of the requirements, he or she receives a master's degree from the ME-EM department. Although MTU is unique in its offer of a degree, the school is not alone in its interest in the developing world: dozens of engineering schools have students who are using their education to help solve problems in the developing world. Engineers Without Borders, for example, has chapters at almost 200 colleges and universities; they also have chapters for working engineers.

For a senior design project, a group of Michigan Tech students built a human-powered machine that could be helpful to a grain farmer in a developing nations. According to an article in the annual report (pp. 8-9 in this PDF), in certain African countries, subsistence farmers harvest their crops by hand and need to walk over 10 miles to get the grain processed. And then – to make matters worse – the grain mill fees can eat up more than 30% of their annual income.

Knowing of the need for a small-scale grain mill – and subject to many constraints, such as lack of electricity, low costs, a need for simplicity, and a high degree of ruggedness – the students tried to find an appropriate solution. With many rural villages lacking reliable supplies of electricity and with small internal combustion engines prone to failure in harsh tropical conditions, the students designed their grain mill around human power — more specifically, a bicycle. As the video below shows, while someone pedals, grain goes into the feed tube and comes out as flour. If the device can be deployed in villages that need it, the villagers will reduce their dependence on outside vendors, while also having more time and money to spend farming or educating their children.

(If the embedded video doesn’t work, here is the YouTube link)

Although Big Ag, many NGOs and other groups (e.g., the Gates Foundation and segments of the U.S. government) continually stress that the top three solutions to Africa's hunger problem are 1) more yield, 2) more yield, and 3) more yield (with additional U.S. food aid running a close fourth), Africa’s farmers have a lot more to worry about than yield. To be sure, increasing yield can be helpful, but the typical metric of the kilograms of crop per square kilometer isn't enough. If a bumper crop can't be processed economically, or if rats eat much of it (see this article in the S.F. Chronicle about the winner of a rat killing contest in Bangladesh, a place where rodents destroy 1.5 million to 2 million tons of food each year, while the country imports 3 million tons per year), or the farmer can't get it to market because the roads are washed out, a 20% higher yield is not much help. Designing and building appropriate technology – where the users’ many needs are taken into account before design begins – isn’t going to do much for corporate bottom lines, but elegant designs like the bicycle-powered grain mill might be a better place to direct development aid, instead of on GMOs and other projects that do more for corporate profits than for Africa.

Cross posted at La Vida Locavore.

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