The challenges facing society in this century are large, but not insurmountable, as three teams of Lafayette students are learning firsthand this summer.
Each group is working on solutions involving engineering as part of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP).
Most schools with active Grand Challenges Scholar programs are engineering schools at large universities. At Lafayette, the program is premised on the belief that solving complex problems necessitates innovative solutions with joint contributions from engineering and the liberal arts.
“Students who complete Grand Challenges projects cultivate the skills necessary to help resolve some of the most pressing global issues of the 21st century, ranging from the challenge of providing long-term, sustainable energy supplies to the challenge of providing accessible health care,” says Lafayette GCSP Steering Committee member Paul Cefalu, associate professor of English.
This is the second year of the program at Lafayette. Last year, four teams of students worked on a portable hydroelectric power system, electrical models that mimic the human brain, electronic translation programs, and better emergency plans for study abroad students.
New this year is a mentoring committee of three faculty members who oversee the progress of all projects. Students submit bi-weekly reports throughout the summer, and the committee provides feedback, answers questions, and generally helps to shepherd things along.
Each team receives a summer research stipend of $3,000 per student; a budget of up to $3,000 for project expenses; and on-campus summer housing after the junior year. Students also receive funding to participate in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program National Summit during their senior year.
This year’s GCSP projects include two that aim to provide clean water to impoverished communities in Haiti and Uganda, and one that applies the principles of microfinance to disaster relief in Pakistan.
History major Sarah Nusbaum ’13 (South Salem, N.Y.), English and psychology double major Madeleine O’Neill ’13 (Katonah, N.Y.), and mechanical engineering major Jessica Rothstein ’13 (Narberth, Pa.) are working to improve access to clean water for a group of families living in the village of Jacmel, Haiti.
Jacmel was extensively damaged during the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010. Obtaining clean water has been very difficult.
“Our goal is to positively impact the lives of a handful of Haitians by improving the quality of their drinking water. By observing and working with the Haitians, we hope to learn how to implement social change using methodology that integrates the cultural and social imperatives of the host country,” Nusbaum says.
Kelsey Lantz ’13 (Washington, Pa.), a double major in engineering studies and international affairs, has undertaken a case study of charity water improvement projects in four Ugandan villages. Her research, which was inspired by work she did last summer with Kristen Sanford Bernhardt, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, aims to quantify and understand the methods necessary to make these types of projects sustainable.
Lantz is working alongside a small Norwegian nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Fontes Foundation, which has been keeping careful financial records since the implementation of its first system in 2004. She is comparing the performance of improved water in four rural communities existing under very similar circumstances to underline the most practical methods to ensure sustainable water service delivery.
To collect data, Lantz is spending several weeks in Uganda this summer.
“From my interviews with the villagers, I began to understand just how positive the impact of clean water was on the community. The danger of wild animals like crocodiles and hippos from collecting water at the river was eliminated, and many people noted reduction in disease as a result. Community participation has a substantial impact on the continued service delivery of a water scheme, so motivating them to take ownership of the system is important,” she Lantz.
Hassaan Khan ’13 (Karachi, Pakistan), a civil engineering major, and Amira Sayyidah Ahsan ’13 (Dhaka, Bangladesh), an electrical and computer engineering major, are working on “Natural Disasters Response and Rehabilitation: A Case Study of the Pakistan Flood.”
Theirs is a multi-dimensional project, involving studying how the flow of the Indus River and its major tributaries could be controlled using a combination of reservoirs and dams and assessing how infrastructure can help mitigate flood damage; examining recent flood responses in Pakistan and neighboring countries; and exploring the potential of microfinance in designing financial products to aid the rehabilitation process for the flood victims.
Khan has been spending time this summer in Pakistan coordinating with an NGO called Akhuwat and disbursing the loans to the families they hope to assist. They will work with five or six families as case studies. Additionally, they are exploring the potential of micro crop insurances in buffering the income shocks from floods.
“The experience of working on a project with such a large scale will hopefully help me down the road. This has helped me understand the various steps that go into carrying out a project, and the time frame involved in planning and execution,” Khan says.