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Avoiding the ‘hit and run’ – engineering for people

October 1, 2013
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A pile of dusty PalmPilots sat in the corner of the building in India. They were designed to help community healthcare researchers collect data for a medical census. But there they were in a heap of electronic scrap with their batteries mysteriously missing.

The gizmos were perfect examples of a “hit and run” involving people swooping in to solve a problem without talking to those who would be using the technology,  said Kathleen Sienko, who noticed the discarded gadgets when she was a graduate student.

“Students have good intentions, but oftentimes they enter a community to try to help out and then retreat after a week or two and move on to something else,” said Sienko, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan.

The problem with the PalmPilots was that the Indian workers feared the new technology would make transcribing the census data unnecessary, costing them their jobs. So they removed the batteries, claimed the devices didn’t work and tossed them away.

“It was at that point in time that I realized how important it is to truly understand the needs of the end users,” Sienko said.

For the past six years, she has led teams of U-M students in both engineering design coursework and month-long field site work in developing countries. They engineer and re-engineer healthcare technologies in collaboration with the people who use them. Sienko also acts as an Advisory Board Member for Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives (M-HEAL), which provides resources for student projects working to develop sustainable solutions for healthcare challenges.

Aileen Huang-Saad, M-HEAL’s faculty adviser and an associate professor of engineering practice at U-M, said, “The first thing we try to teach them is they cannot be the person who says ‘I’m here to solve your problem.’ We want them to be a part of the team and say, ‘I’m here to work with you and learn about your problems.’”

Another organization, Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory (BLUElab), provides the same type of support system for student teams working to find sustainable solutions in developing nations. Since its inception in 2003, BLUElab has grown into a large umbrella organization, acting as an incubator for more than 10 engineering projects.

As former president of BLUElab and leader of its Woven Wind team, Sita Syal has seen how much a design can – and should – change once you are on the ground. She and her team spent a year working with the non-profit agency Appropriate Technology Collaborative to create wind turbines to help provide electricity for the town of Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan in Guatemala before traveling to the region themselves.

The idea was a good one: create wind turbines using blades made of woven material. The blades could be built by the town’s women, who were expert weavers, thereby helping to support the local economy in addition to providing electricity.

But their first trip there revealed a cultural need they hadn’t anticipated. The residents weren’t looking to power their lights. They were happy with the traditional methods of doing that. What they really wanted was to charge their cell phones so they could communicate with family and friends in distant towns.

“We just didn’t anticipate that at all,” said Syal, who is pursuing her master’s degree in Energy Systems Engineering.

So the team had to adapt their design to accommodate the change in demand.

To combat this, students are encouraged to use the “triple-bottom-line” approach to designing. Coined in the 1990s by John Elkington – an expert on sustainable development – the concept encourages organizations to go beyond the traditional “bottom line” of profit and loss and instead consider three different measures of impact: people, the planet and the pocketbook.

“We can see throughout modern history that the environmental and social integrity are often hurt by the ‘bottom-line’ of money,” said Steven Skerlos, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor for mechanical, civil and environmental engineering at U-M. “Conversely, design can’t just be about the environment. It’s got to work in the market and it also has to be good for the people.”

Skerlos, BLUElab’s faculty advisor and director of Sustainability Education Programs at the College of Engineering, says that holistic approach to designing a sustainable solution is integral for students to learn.

“We’re trying to teach our students how to understand and make those tough choices,” he said. “There are engineering decisions to be made, but also environmental decisions with real human consequences.”

See the longer version of this multimedia story here.

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