Students Use Engineering Skills to Benefit South African Communities

Dec. 17, 2007 — Over the past 200 years, the infrastructure created by engineers has done as much to improve the health and quality of life in people around the world as have advances in medicine. Simply put, clean water, reliable power, good roads and efficient communications save lives.

This past summer, four Engineering School students learned this lesson with an immediacy that can never be achieved in the classroom. They traveled to South Africa, where, together with faculty and students at the University of Venda (UNIVEN) and the Vhembe Fet College (Techniven) and with members of local communities, they undertook simple engineering projects that have the potential to make small but definite contributions to local health and education.

Biomedical engineering majors Shokoufeh Dianat (’09) and Veronica Yeh (’09) joined Ritwik “Ricky” Sahu (’09), a systems engineering and economics major, to build two biodigesters that could produce methane for cooking. Maggie Kirkpatrick (’08), a mechanical engineer minoring in biomedical engineering, erected solar panels to generate electricity in a preschool. Each was advised by environmental sciences professor Robert Swap and funded by the University’s Institute of Practical Ethics and Center for Global Health, which receive support from the Engineering School.

“These projects really capture what engineering is all about — problemsolving within constraints,” says Engineering School Dean James H. Aylor. “The students had to design culturally appropriate projects that could be built from inexpensive local materials.”

The biodigester project is a case in point. Dianat, Yeh and Sahu familiarized themselves with the technical details of their project by building a prototype of the biodigester, which uses a thin mixture of cow dung and water, on Dean Aylor’s farm in Madison County, Va. Once in South Africa, however, the trio of students found that a critical factor in the project’s success was the human dimension. As Dianat says, “We spent a lot of our time there building relationships to ensure the sustainability of the project.”

The team installed biodigesters in two villages, Tshibvumo and Khakhanwa. They produce enough methane to enable a household to cook for an hour, replacing wood fires, which are associated with respiratory ailments.

Kirkpatrick and two other current and former U.Va. students worked with community members, faculty and students at UNIVEN and Techniven to design and install a solar panel in a preschool in Tshibvumo and wire it for electricity. She and her colleagues enlisted local support; drafted an electrical plan; and sourced the wiring, switches and other materials locally.

With just a few adjustments, the lights worked immediately. “As you can imagine, there was a lot of excitement,” she says. The panels power 12 lights, enabling village members to make better use of the building and reducing eyestrain on young scholars.

The impact of these efforts on the engineering students themselves was as dramatic as it was on the communities. As Yeh, a member of the biodigester team, notes, “You learn a lot from being outside your comfort zone.” Dr. Richard Guerrant, director of the Center for Global Health, concurs. “When engineering students go to countries like South Africa, they realize just how precious their knowledge is. They come to understand that the skills they gain at U.Va. can be used to help others lead better, more productive lives. It’s a humbling, empowering, lifechanging experience.”