There was a moment, some three days into K-WIDE, when frustration began to get the better of Reginald Nelson '18.
"We had been sitting in a room for eight hours straight — maybe a break here and there, but we have a deadline," said Nelson, a sophomore mechanical engineering and management major. "Our instructors left it to us. They said, 'Here's what you need to do. You have until nine o'clock.' So now you're sitting at this table with a group and you almost don't have anything.
"You have some ideas that you brainstormed, but now you have to have something tangible. It's almost like pulling something out of a cloud, which makes you uncomfortable, because the time is going. You're looking at each other like, 'I don't know what to do.' "
The task that had Nelson so stumped was no mere course assignment, but a question of global importance. Together with 16 other college sophomores, he was given a $100 budget and asked to create a product to further one of the Sustainable Development Goals the U.N. began promoting this December 2015, an objective encapsulated by the phrase, "decent work."
Nelson took on the assignment as a participant in K-WIDE, the KEEN Winter Interdisciplinary Design Experience, a 10-day intensive design program hosted by Bucknell's College of Engineering during winter break. Supported by a grant from the Kern Family Foundation, K-WIDE is now in its fourth year of challenging students to stretch their ingenuity and tackle global problems. It has grown to this year include three students from the University of New Haven, which will implement its own version of K-WIDE modeled on Bucknell's this summer.
The program encourages students to disregard, at least temporarily, the regimented design process introduced in engineering textbooks — which usually starts with defining a problem and proceeds in a straight line through designing, prototyping and testing a solution. While that approach has merits as an instructional aid, real-world projects go back to the drawing board more often than it reflects, said Professor Joseph Tranquillo, biomedical engineering, who organizes K-WIDE along with mechanical engineering Professor Charles Kim.
"A real design process for a real-world problem is messy and ugly," Tranquillo said. "The design process is not one thing; it's many things that you adapt to the problem that you are tackling. If it's a really complex problem, well, your design process needs to mirror the problem you're trying to solve. What we've done in giving students a really giant, ugly, messy problem is to let their design process emerge as they navigate the development of their own solution."
In practice, that meant Nelson, along with his three teammates and the other participants in K-WIDE, had been given an assignment that was intentionally open-ended, and largely left to his own devices to translate it into a product prototype.
We have milestones, and we also have some instruction that we give, typically on the order of 45 minutes for the whole day," said Kim.
Nelson wasn't alone in feeling frustrated by it — in fact, one day after 12 hours sitting at the same table, his group found they could do little more than laugh for about 30 minutes straight. They decided to give up for the moment and play cards. Similar moments were faced by every group participating.
"My engineering education so far at Bucknell has helped me figure out how to solve problems," said Jackie Scott, whose group would design a system to help prevent accidents in highway construction zones. "At K-WIDE we didn't even have a problem. We spent four days trying to figure out what problem we would solve."
"This program has been frustrating, but in that frustration is innovation," said Nelson's teammate Allan La, a computer science and engineering major. "The reason I came to K-WIDE is to work on building my innovation skills by putting myself in a situation where I'd be really frustrated. We're thinking of ideas for things no one has done yet, and looking at what others have done from a different perspective."
La and Nelson's group would scrap their plans and go back to the drawing board eight times before settling on a final product. While it was frustrating, each time it got a little bit easier.
"We were uncomfortable, but that feeling stretched us," Nelson said. "It took us a few days to start thinking of actual products, but once we had to scrap all those products, it took us hours to get the next product. We turned days into hours, because we had grown during those few days."
The product they settled on and built is a squat cylinder containing three separate compartments with individual doors. Turned on its side like a wheel, the container is connected at its hub to a handle, allowing it to be pushed like a lawnmower. The cart can maneuver in tight areas better than a wheelbarrow, and the separate compartments are useful for farmers who interplant crops to increase yield and preserve soil.
The group built the cart from materials that are easy to source in the developing world — a section cut from a water barrel for the cylinder, PVC pipe for the handle, a wooden lid with hinges and fasteners available at any hardware store — hoping the carts can built cheaply by the farmers who will use them.
The group is considering applying for a Davis Projects for Peace grant to refine their design — which includes designing an adapter that connects to a bicycle — and to travel abroad to introduce it to farmers in the developing world.
If we can further this product and actually implement it in a country, we've made a difference, one that we probably won't even see after we leave," Nelson said. "But who knows how this could help people, and how far they can develop it themselves?"
By the end of the program, all five groups had crossed a similar gulf; from frustration, and lots of hard work, came hope about the difference their products and engineering solutions could make.
The program culminated with a final design expo, where in addition to the container cart groups displayed a system for marking hazards in a construction zones with GPS-enabled radios and a companion app, a method of giving road workers advance warning when cars veer into road-work zones, a device that trains warehouse workers to use proper posture when lifting and carrying heavy loads, and a small and cheap catalytic converter for generators, which are frequently used as a backup power source by small businesses in developing nations.
"You learn a lot about yourself and how you think through things too," said Sami Golaski '18, an accounting and financial management major said in summing up the program. "We learned how to get ourselves unstuck."