College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

A World of Difference

Harvesting rainwater in India, designing solar fruit dryers in Belize, developing water valves in Mali, Africa: these are just a few examples of service-learning projects involving students at Iowa State’s College of Engineering.

These hands-on learning experiences take students out of the classroom and place them in villages or communities in need of engineering solutions to help populations get out of poverty or simply improve their standard of living. They teach students about appropriate technology and engineering solutions that fit within the cultural, social, and economic context of the area. And they demonstrate a form of cross-cultural engineering whose final outcomes can change the lives of many—even the students themselves.

Beyond advancing a set of professional skills for their future careers, students gain a broader sense of their world, understanding that people aren’t that different from one another and that they all have the same basic desires for themselves and their families. Whether participating in service learning through an organization or class, students discover the rewards and challenges of engineering appropriate technologies in a global context—an important lesson that can be difficult to learn from a textbook.

A grassroots effort

Engineering students and faculty in service-learning projects share a passion to help others gain access to appropriate and sustainable goods and services. It’s this shared vision that makes the projects so successful at Iowa State, according to Julia Apple-Smith, director of Engineering International Programs and Services (EIPS).

Apple-Smith and others in the EIPS office help get projects up and running for organizations such as Engineers for a Sustainable World and Engineers Without Borders, as well as assisting faculty members with classes dedicated to engineering appropriate technologies for developing nations.

Laying the groundwork for a new project requires passing several checkpoints within the college and the university, as well as fund-raising and soliciting help to champion the programs.

Student and faculty safety is a top priority. Before students can travel to work on projects, a faculty member must visit the site at least once, often with EIPS support, depending upon the availability of funds. Also, students are provided with an orientation on the culture of the area they are visiting.

“A tremendous amount of organization goes into making these projects successful,” Apple-Smith says. “But the return on investment—building relationships across the globe and addressing important needs of people around the world—is well worth the effort.”

Help for the poorest nations

Mark Bryden, associate professor of mechanical engineering, has been engaged with the developing world since 1999, addressing engineering issues in places such as Vietnam, India, and Mexico with graduate students who share his interest in appropriate technology. Recently, however, he has shifted his focus to nations that have little or no access to services, areas where citizens make less than $1 per day—and he’s taking undergraduates along for the journey.

Bryden offers a series of three unique mechanical engineering (ME) courses in appropriate technology that present students with the challenge of engineering in developing countries with limited resources. Sustainable Engineering and International Development (ME 388) provides students with an overall sense of systems and sustainability; Design for Appropriate Technologies (ME 486) allows students to design solutions for real problems; and Applied Methods in Sustainable Engineering and International Development (ME 389) puts students in the field, where they’ll implement on location the designs developed in ME 486.

For the past several years, Bryden and Richard LeSar, professor and chair of materials science and engineering, have been working with their students on technologies for a village in Mali, Africa, where more than half the population lives in extreme poverty.

“Students learn the multicultural aspects of poverty and how important those factors are in engineering design,” Bryden says. “They have to answer tough questions like, ‘How do I design something for someone with low literacy, who doesn’t speak the administrative language of the country?’ Or, ‘How can this technology operate in a place without running water or electricity?’ ”

A village takes ownership

With a long-standing interest in international development, ME junior Keysha Hennings started answering some of those questions while working on a water valve project for ME 389. Once in Mali, she and her fellow students had the opportunity to speak with local villagers through a translator. According to Hennings, the discussions were more about the villagers’ daily lives than the student projects, so students had a better idea how to design something that fit into the villagers’ lifestyles rather than impeding them.


After all, observes Hennings, a primary objective of the engineers is to act as catalysts and resources for the villagers, rather than just dropping in with a technology and leaving. Hennings’ experience therefore taught her as well the importance of local ownership of the technologies.

“For an appropriate technology to be sustainable, the people using it have to feel like it is their own, taking responsibility for repairing or improving it,” Hennings says. “If these villagers don’t take charge and get involved with the projects, they won’t end up using the technologies.”

The water valve project Hennings and other engineering students collaborated on involved the community water tank, which frequently ran empty from leaks. The villagers use the valve on the tank about 200 times per day, a rate that exceeds the life cycle of the valve on the side of your house in little more than a month.

“These solutions take ingenuity,” Hennings says. “You are working with bicycle inner tubes and sticks instead of metal rods and Teflon tape.”

With improved water, as well as benefits from the lighting and cook stove projects the class has been working on, villagers in these rural areas will be safer and have more time to spend on income-generating activities for themselves and their village.

Putting goodwill to work

New to campus in 2008, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) plans to visit Mali this fall to assist with Bryden and his students’ efforts, as well as instituting its own projects in the west African nation to address sanitation, health care, clean and safe energy, and daily nutritional needs.

Organized independently in several different European nations in the 1990s before coming to the United States in 2001, EWB works to advance the quality of life in poor nations by meeting basic needs and providing social engagement to support community development. Currently a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering and international development, president and founder of the Iowa State chapter Nathan Johnson (BSME’04, MSME’05) says EWB gives students an opportunity and direction for putting their goodwill to work.

“Students are interested in addressing humanitarian issues,” Johnson says. “With EWB, they find a common vision and a pathway for developing skills to meet needs of the next generation across the globe.”

The organization is open to all disciplines in an effort to bring cross-disciplinary insight to projects. As EWB continues to develop as a student organization, leaders are planning awareness events to help build knowledge about global issues.

“Once you start thinking about poverty, sustainability, and how your skills can make a difference, your worldview changes,” Johnson says. “It’s energizing to see how students grow throughout their involvement in the organization.”

A five-year commitment

Five EWB members traveled to a village in Belize for two weeks this summer for a “first contact” visit. Once there, they learned the needs of households and the community by preparing meals, tending gardens, and caring for children. Living with them and participating in their lives this way, they found the villagers were greatly concerned about clean water, clean cooking energy, household gardening, and creating jobs.

A future project in EWB plans is to create a bus stop, a source of pride for the community and especially important for villagers needing medical care. “Without this mode of transportation,” Johnson explains, “many villagers who are sick don’t seek the medical care they need. And those who do go to the hospital have to endure harsh weather, which can lead to greater illness, especially in pregnant women.”

Additionally, the group will focus on improvements to the village school such as continuing a literacy program, developing a health program, and building a school garden for a feeding program, using solar fruit dryers to extend the shelf life of the food grown in the garden.

As new members join, they hope to meet requests for projects in Haiti, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Yet, while the group works on as many projects as possible, EWB is careful to ensure it can maintain a five-year commitment to areas where they plan to implement engineering solutions.

“We have an important responsibility to educate villagers about their options so they can develop accurate expectations of our work,” Johnson says. “This educational component can take a long time, but it is crucial as we work to maintain a delicate balance between the politics and perceptions that surround the work we do.”

Mobilizing worldwide service


For the past three years, student members of EWB’s peer organization, Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), have been working on several development projects, including household energy and water harvesting in the Kamuli District of Uganda, where they learned firsthand how appropriate technologies can help areas lacking electricity or clean drinking water.

The students are now extending that knowledge to assist the villages of Purkal and Jaspur in northern India. There, in collaboration with EWB at Kansas State, the Dehradun Institute of Technology (DIT) in India, and Purkal Youth Development Society, an Indian NGO, they will work on solar street lighting, solar fruit dryers, and rainwater harvesting.

Members of the several groups met for the first time in India last spring to share their research and ideas, assess the sites, and begin engineering solutions for the projects. Divided into student teams, each had representatives from the different universities.

According to Alok Bhandari, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, this sort of teamwork is an essential part of developing sustainable technologies.

“It can take awhile for a community to accept a new way of doing things,” Bhandari says. “In this case, DIT students and faculty who are invested in the projects will be on-site at all times, helping villagers work through issues.”

Pride in meeting needs

Pasha Beresnev, a senior in civil engineering, worked on the rainwater harvesting project, exploring how villagers might collect clean water for domestic use and build water storage tanks for farming. The teams researched filtration systems for rooftop water harvesting and scouted locations for large-scale units requiring space for two tanks, one for sedimentation and one for storage.

The students faced an unanticipated challenge in the landscape of the area. The village was located on a hill in an area prone to earthquakes, with limited flat areas for large water storage. That’s where having multiple perspectives on the issue made a difference.

“Because there were new ideas and opinions always being shared,” Beresnev notes, “we left India encouraged that we had a strong foundation to begin building our prototypes.” Students from each university will now begin developing solutions to test, he says, with plans to implement the best solutions in the near future.

As a faculty member, Bhandari has been involved in several service-learning projects. With each project, he is amazed at how much students learn in the field, and how they come to appreciate that their work means something to someone.

“When you work to improve the quality of life for people, you are changing local economics and creating sustainable approaches for generating wealth,” Bhandari says. “That’s something students and faculty can take pride in—but with the understanding that, while we have success in one place, there are so many more that need our attention.”