Wednesday, April 23, 2008

England Day 1 - EWB-UK Research Conference

I spent the last weekend in London - I haven't been there in over two years, so it was really great to go back. My mom also came to London, and we were actually able to get on the same flight out of DC. We left DC on Thursday after class (got on a 10pm flight) and arrived in London at 11am after only a 6 hour flight (which meant less than 6 hours of sleep...).

After landing, we went straight to the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) UK Conference. Actually, not quite straight there, because we accidentally went to Imperial College London first, before getting to the Institute of Structural Engineers, which is where we meant to go. We got there just in time for lunch, actually, and had some great English sandwiches. I was finally able to meet in person some of the EWB people I had been talking to over internet for months. I also ran into Tom Newby, who had been involved in EWB while I was at Cambridge, and said hello to Heather Cruikshanks, who had been my third year project adviser while I was studying in Cambridge.

After lunch there were two talks before my own. First was Ron Dennis talking about bicycle and motorcycle ambulances for rural areas developed by Developing Technologies. The idea is that a standard ambulance is too expensive to buy the number that are needed in large, rural areas. The two other options seem to be bicycles and motocycles, to which you attach a trailer. However, bicycles are don't go particularly quickly, and can be difficult to impossible to pedal over rough terrain or up hills, which makes them less than ideal for ambulance services. Motorcycles, though more expensive, offer a better option, because they are available in a lot of places and are strong enough to go quickly over rough terrain. This group designed an ambulance trailer that could be attached to any motorcycle. One interesting thing to me was that they had done work in Zambia, where I had visited two years ago. They actually worked with Disacare - which is an organization that manufactures wheelchairs suitable for rough terrain in sub-Saharan Africa. I've actually been to Disacare and seen their workshop and played a game of wheelchair basketball. Most of the people that work their are disabled, and they play a weekly game of wheelchair basketball, to which others are welcome to join. I did, but it's really hard to coordinate wheeling, dodging, dribbling and throwing at the same time, so I was pretty awful at it. Overall, the talk was interesting and it seemed like they had come up with a good design.

The second talk was on water testing in developing countries. The speaker, Dr. Stephan Gundry, talked about Aquatest, which is a method developed for easy on-site testing of water in rural areas. They are designing a low-cost, easy to use technology that will allow people without training to take water samples and get a result that is easy to understand regarding the quality of the water for drinking. The World Health Organization is also interested in using this technology in disaster situations to quickly assess whether the water sources are still safe to drink from. The project seems to be going well - they just received a large grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and there is a lot of interest.

At about 4pm, it was time for me to give my talk about engINdia. It is the first time I've presented about engINdia at a research conference, so I was really hoping that I'd be able to effectively explain what our organization does. I explained the idea behind engINdia: that there are engineering students around the world that have the opportunity to work on a hands-on project during their undergraduate education, and these students are interested in working on sustainable development projects. However, unless you have detailed information about a specific engineering challenge in a specific area, it is almost impossible to identify a meaningful project. Meanwhile, there are people in developing nations that are interested in collaborating with other people and coming up with innovative, appropriate solutions for engineering challenges in their communities. engINdia was designed to bridge this gap by traveling to rural India, learning about a community, and documenting engineering challenges of the local population. We lived in the village and got to know people well to be sure that we really understood the local situation and which things the villagers viewed as challenges. We came up with a list of more than twenty project descriptions, which we then put on a website - We also work hard to facilitate communication among students working on projects and people in Pabal, India. This allows students to ask questions and get information and feedback as they develop a solution. Communication happens primarily through email, but we are also trying to capture information on a wiki. We also promote the implementation of the proposed solutions, through getting information back to the people in the village or through providing information to help a student travel to Pabal to work with the people there directly.

After the talk, people asked quite a few questions, which I thought was great, because it meant people were interested. I explained a bit more about how we had spent a lot of time getting to know people and learning about their daily lives. I also explained how we worked with Vigyan Ashram, a school in Pabal that teaches practical engineering and entrepreneurial skills. A student at Cambridge that organizes research projects for EWB told me that the engINdia project description have been really useful and are some of the best he has for getting professors to support sustainable development projects. It was great to hear that engINdia projects were being used by people and that the purpose of the organization had been understood.

Mine was the last talk for the day, so all that was left were the closing remarks. Then there was a bit of wine and networking, which gave me a chance to talk to more people and find out a little more about other projects as well.

Most of the group then went out to Pizza Express, which is a somewhat fancy pizza chain restaurant in England. Dinner was great, and it was nice to chat with people. I sat next to someone who had just completed a project on mud bricks throughout the world - how mud brick building are made and maintained, what their structural properties are, etc. He had traveled to Morocco, India, and some other locations and found that the construction methods with mud bricks were similar.

After dinner, my mom and I were pretty exhausted, so after a brief internet cafe stop, we headed to Monica's flat in Whitechapel. It was really cool to see where Monica was living and hear about her adventures in England. She had been living in Boston last year the same time I was, but since then she had found a new job in London and moved there. We ended up staying up much later than we should have chatting and catching up.

1 comment:

Jeff Stevenson said...

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