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August 11, 09

NEWS / Engineering Students Look Outside the U.S. for Training

Students make fertilizer, design irrigation in far-flung places

By Karen Calabria
Special Correspondent

Washington — How can villagers in the remote Nicaraguan highlands reduce deforestation, produce clean-burning fuel and improve their economic livelihoods?

That’s a question to which five engineering students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, sought an answer.

Young American engineering students increasingly work on projects that help the poor around the world. These pre-professionals are preparing to enter an industry that has become multinational in scope. For student-engineers at universities across America, field work on economically, financially and environmentally sustainable projects in the developing world has become a standard component of their education.

The Northwestern students answered the question of how to create fuel in an environmentally friendly and business-savvy way by adapting existing technology to the needs of residents in Potreritos, Nicaragua. The five students designed a system in which animal waste is transformed into renewable energy and nutrient-rich fertilizer.

“This was not something we were going to be able to experience in a classroom,” Northwestern student Junzi Shi said. “We got a lot of hands-on experience, from writing grants to dealing with the responsibility of making the right design decisions and implementing them in the community.”

Shi and four other members of the university’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) worked with Nicaraguan organization AsoFenix for a year to design and implement a structure that would convert manure to methane gas. The project culminated in a weeklong trip to Potreritos and neighboring Bramadero to install the end result, a trip for which none received academic credit.

“The students learn to problem-solve in less than ideal situations. They might not have the right tools or the right books, but to get things working, they need to get creative and work with what they have,” said David Hauth, a field engineer with AsoFenix.

The manure-to-methane technology will reduce water pollution, decrease deforestation and improve pulmonary health by introducing a clean, nonpolluting fuel, Hauth said. An initiative to help villagers sell the excess fertilizer to neighboring farmers is being developed.


“If you haven’t worked internationally, pretty soon you’re going to be left behind,” said Purdue University mechanical engineering graduate Tyler Williams, who spent his final year of college designing an irrigation system in Rwanda. (Purdue is in West Lafayette, Indiana.)

Young engineers are turning to groups like ESW and Green Empowerment, which supports renewable energy projects in South America and Southeast Asia, to place them in development projects around the globe.

“We help get students real hands-on experience not only in their field, but in the context of international development that they wouldn’t have had a chance to experience otherwise,” said Jason Selwitz of Green Empowerment.

Employers are noticing. “These students are head and shoulders ahead of students who’ve never left the United States,” said Julie Chow, executive director of ESW, which has sponsored more than 200 students for work on projects in the developing world since 2003.

Student-generated initiatives aren’t the only path toward international work experience. Universities are also building cross-cultural platforms.

E. Dan Hirleman, head of the mechanical engineering program at Purdue, spearheaded a partnership between his students and civil engineering students at the National University of Rwanda (NUR) at Butare.

“Our shared goal was to get our students and theirs working together and better prepared for careers as global engineers, increasing their competitiveness,” Hirleman said.

Hirleman’s students made several trips to southwestern Rwanda as the team designed an irrigation system for subsistence farmers that would enable farming during the dry season.

Although the project didn’t turn out as expected, resulting in the development of a methodology with which to approach future projects but not the irrigation system there, both partners considered the project a success in that it introduced students to some of the technical challenges they’ll face as engineers working in the developing world.

According to Digne Rwabuhungu, dean of applied sciences at NUR, “Students from NUR learned how to design an irrigation project with logistic software that they don’t otherwise have access to, and the students from Purdue, in addition to learning more about Rwandan culture, learned about the difficulty of applying their skills in [a developing country].”

Increasing numbers of engineering students now opt to study abroad for full semesters at a time. According to a recent study by the Institute for International Education, engineering students made up 3.1 percent of the total number of students that studied abroad during the 2006–2007 academic year, up from 1.9 percent in 1996–1997.

That share is likely to keep growing. According to Arden Bennet Jr., director of the National Science Foundation in Washington, “International cooperation in science is not a luxury; it is a necessity — and the foundation for the future.”




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