Changing Lives, One Class at a Time

Changing Lives, One Class at a Time

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Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 11:00am

CONTENT: Article

Most people attend college to learn and prepare for their future career. You don’t imagine that your actions in that classroom will change someone’s life somewhere across the globe. But for students in Michigan State University’s ME 491 International Humanitarian Engineering class–taught by Dr. Brian Thompson, Professor of Mechanical Engineering–that’s exactly what happens.

In this class, aspiring engineers take on projects that generally focus on one of the three major issues that developing nations face: pollution, water and food. In many cases, by solving a relatively minor issue, great improvements can be made that allow for both better nutrition and health for native populations and an increased source of income through the sale of surplus or higher-quality goods. The projects are collaborations between MSU students and local governments, non-profits, businesses or non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

An initial donation of $4,000 from Whirlpool Corporation was meant to cover the costs involved for two teams to design and implement their projects: a human powered plastic recycler and a solar powered fruit dehydrator. Because these two teams were so resourceful in their use of the sponsorship, an additional six projects were able to be funded. You can read about these projects in detail below.

Both environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility are topics of great importance at Whirlpool Corporation. This opportunity to work with MSU provided a chance to support and develop these qualities within the engineers of our future.To find out more about the issues that matter to Whirlpool Corporation, select the “What Matters to Us” menu item.

Appropriate Technology CollaborativeGuatemala: Human Powered Plastic Recycler
The Appropriate Technology Collaborative is a non-governmental organization (NGO) working to improve the quality of life in low-income communities through technology. In Guatemala, local residents can make a living by gathering and sorting raw plastic and selling it to recycling plants for processing.

The goal of the MSU team is to work with Appropriate Technology Collaborative to create a human-powered plastic shredder, made from local resources, and combining that with an environmentally safe method for cleaning the plastic which will allow the plastic to be sold for almost double the price of the raw uncleaned plastic.

Appropriate Technology CollaborativeGuatemala: Panyebar Nutrition Center — Solar Powered Fruit Dehydrator
In Panyebar, Guatemala, crops are plentiful but only on a seasonal basis. The children of this community have a variety of health issues because they are lacking in micronutrients due to the seasonality of their food production. It’s lack of storage rather than insufficient supply which is causing the problem.

A partnership between the Panyebar Education and Nutrition Center and the team at MSU imagined a solution for this problem with a solar food dehydrator. Dehydrated food can be stored for long periods of time, sustaining children during times between harvests.

This year-round supply of food provides the necessary micronutrients for children and is a source of income. Surplus food may be sold at local markets and the dehydrators will be manufactured in Panyebar using local materials.

Appropriate Technology CollaborativeGuatemala: Solar Food Dehydrator for the Home
Based on the success of the Solar Powered Dehydrator for the Panyebar Education and Nutrition Center, whose primary focus was large-scale food dehydration as a source of income, a smaller unit was imagined for home use. By making it affordable for individuals to preserve and store food, the health of the community, particularly children, can be improved on a greater scale.

Appropriate Technology CollaborativeGuatemala: Macadamia Nut Husker
Husking a macadamia nut is a difficult process. It must be done within 24 hours to prevent mold. The husks also harden quickly making them difficult to remove. The nuts must be dried before the shell is cracked so damaging the shell when husking lowers their value. Due to these factors, many farmers sell their macadamia nuts in-husk or those with access to hand-powered huskers sell B-Grade broken nuts–either option resulting in a lower profit.

By improving the nut husking process, farmers will not lose any of their harvest and will increase their income and their quality of life.

Nutri-Fresh Farm & Agri-HubKenya: Operation Irrigation Greywater Filtration Device
Nutri-Fresh Farm & Agri Hub is a non-governmental organization (NGO), working with the MSU team, to bring agribusiness innovations to low-income areas. In Kenya, the ability to safely and consistently grow your own food is so lacking that it is not uncommon for Kenyans to steal lions’ prey in order to eat.

Greywater is one of the problems that hinders crop growth. Greywater is water that has been contaminated with household soaps and cooking oil. By filtering this water to irrigate crops such as spinach, tomatoes, kale and strawberries, Kenyans have a more reliable and safe food source.

The MSU team’s greywater filtration device will be made from PVC, plastics, natural materials and other common supplies and will filter 60-100 liters per day.

Nutri-Fresh Farm & Agri-Hub Kenya: Processing Cassava Roots Into Flour
Poor living conditions and inconsistent food sources are problems that many Kenyans face. Cassava, a tuberous root from a tropical tree, is a major staple in many Kenyan diets. This tuber, which looks like a large sweet potato, can also be problematic.

Cassava has a short shelf life and is unusable if not processed within 72 hours. Processing cassava must also be done carefully as it contains cyanogenic glycosides which are converted into cyanide in the digestive system. Proper processing prevents ingestion of cyanide at unsafe levels.

The goal of this project is to develop a human-powered device to quickly and safely process cassava into flour. By doing so, the shelf life of the product goes from 72 hours to one year. This gives families access to a consistent food source and increases income for small-scale farmers by decreasing waste.

SymbiosisIndia: Human-Powered Machine that Collects Urban Trash
The Government of India has launched a program called the Clean India Initiative in order to address seven basic sanitation and public health problems in their country.

In collaboration with the government and a local IT Company Symbiosis, the MSU team is designing a machine to clean public spaces in India. Using locally sourced materials, the team seeks not only to find a solution to a public health crisis but to also spark a change in mindset in India and potentially elsewhere around the world.

Semilla NuevaPortable Pigeonpea Thresher
Of the 15.5 million population of Guatemala, over half of those people live on less than $2 a day and “over half of children under five are chronically malnourished” according to USAID.

Right now, corn is the primary crop grown in Guatemala but it is problematic because it doesn’t provide enough nutrients and protein, the crop can severely damage the soils and Guatemalan corn cannot compete in the global commodities markets. Semilla Nueva, an NGO, is working with local farming families to transition to pigeonpea which reduces soil damage, combats malnutrition and can increase profits.

The goal of the MSU team is to create a low-cost method of removing the peas from their pods to increase the number of peas harvested which would enhance both the health and wealth of Guatemalan communities.

To find out more about Michigan State University’s ME 491 International Humanitarian Engineering, visit

CATEGORY: Education