Spotlight: Service-minded Students Face Hurdles

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The neonatal ventilator that a group of Brigham Young University engineering seniors built over the past year doesn’t look like it’s from this day and age, with its boxy shape and analog meters. The $40,000 version found in most U.S. hospitals can include touch screens and advanced capabilities to record a premature infant’s vital signs. But the BYU students’ seemingly outdated technology could help families in the Philippines and Africa, where the current best solution — a hand pump that families have to operate 24 hours a day — isn’t enough to keep many infants alive, according to a BYU news release.

The device has just enough functions to monitor a baby’s breathing patterns and deliver oxygen in a consistent, timed manner. Each costs about $500 each to make, and it’s easy to fix if it breaks, says team leader and recent mechanical engineering graduate Spencer Ferguson.

But the team has a long way to go before its machine is put to use. Currently the students are trying to raise $25,000 for animal tests. It’s hard to say when that goal will be reached, Ferguson says, and while they hope eventually to mass-manufacture the device and train nurses on how to use it, they don’t yet have a clearly defined plan.

Such hurdles are frustratingly frequent among student service projects aimed at  developing communities. Coming up with an ingenious, cost-saving device is often just  the first step. Without knowledge of the particular country, connections, and tact, it’s hard to really make a lasting impact, says Paul Chinowsky, director of the University of Colorado – Boulder’s Mortenson Center for Engineering in Developing Communities (MCEDC).

Engineering development and service centers at universities are trying to address such problems. They include centers like MCEDC or groups like Clemson University’s Engineers for Developing Countries (EDC).

MCEDC combines degree-granting programs with service projects, so that service-minded engineers can better understand how engineering can help developing communities, Chinowsky says.

Chinowsky sees students going out into the field to implement projects as more of a supplement to an engineer’s core knowledge base, which includes the economic, political, and cultural knowledge of why that particular community is in need of a project. Without that knowledge, he added, projects often end up a failure.

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“Well over half of projects fail within a year because students don’t necessarily understand the political reality of the project,” he says. “There has to be a complement. If you don’t understand how to get government backing, for instance, the odds of success become very small, and the community doesn’t benefit.”

Other common pitfalls include taking on projects that are too complex for some student groups to complete. Oftentimes, it’s better to work on an achievable goal or break a complex project down into smaller, more achievable goals. Some student groups also may not know that their country of interest is not safe to travel to, he said. Additionally, universities often don’t fund service-based projects, even if they have backing from a center like MCEDC. Clemson’s EDC, for instance, only receives funding for the number of student volunteers running the program, and has to look to other sources to fund their many projects in Haiti, says adviser Jennifer Ogle, an associate professor of civil engineering.

Thinking about economic impacts is important, Ogle says, as she’s seen all too many student groups building houses and other structures that could instead have generated jobs and income for local workers, or projects abandoned that no one in the community knew how to fix.

“It’s kind of funny because when you visit a community to help them install a water system . . . you’ll see a former water system or buckets laying around that didn’t work for them, ” she says. “So many things . . . have been put into place but with no life cycle or no consideration for what’s going to happen in the future, and when something breaks, it’s toast.”

Forming in-country relationships with nonprofits is another way to spread knowledge and share ideas, she says. EDC is looking to connect with as many non-governmental organizations in their region of Haiti as possible, for instance, so they can keep tabs on what others are doing and maybe swap materials, support, and expertise.

The extra effort required for successful projects is well worth it. Students who can build projects under developing country constraints become better engineers in the process, Ogle notes.

“There are all these constraints on materials, power, and equipment in these countries,” she said. “The engineering and thought process that goes into how to make a system work when you don’t have reliable power makes them better engineers overall. They can’t design projects using what we call ‘first-world eyes.'”

The BYU team has caught the eye of LDS Charities and the Bill Gates Foundation. The latter is already interested in buying some devices, if the prototype can pass animal testing, Ferguson said. Two Utah Valley Regional Medical Center neo-natologists and a local philanthropist also support the group with in-country knowledge, start-up funding, and connections. Ferguson and a few other students plan to continue their commitment to the project after graduation, even if other students take over.

“I didn’t specifically want to work on nonprofits, but when I saw this project, I thought this would be the most rewarding to work on,” Ferguson says of choosing the ventilator as his senior capstone. “I had the drive to improve the medical field and help others, and the humanitarian aspect is just a bonus.”

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