January 27, 2011

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Charles Kim
Reposted July 14, 2011

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Charles Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, talks about engineering for those struggling to meet basic needs and how such projects benefit students by facilitating deeper learning and a greater sense of civic responsibility.

Q: Recently you gave a talk making the point that most engineering performed by the most intelligent and talented engineers benefits only 10 percent of the world's population while more than 1 billion people worldwide struggle to meet basic human needs. As a professor how are you working to change that?

A: This is one of the more disconcerting statistics I have found about engineering. A lot of engineering decisions are made because you have to think about the profitability of a company and what will impact the bottom line the best. In the current environment, we engineer a lot of high-tech, very attractive products, like the iPhone and the iPad and all their competitors. We perceive that these types of products will yield the greatest profit.

Most of our efforts as engineers go toward serving the population that wants the next greatest and best thing, while we have 1.5 billion people who barely get water or food every day. There are about 1.5 to 2 billion people a day who live off one dollar or less a day. This, of course, is relative in the sense that one dollar can buy you a whole lot more in sub-Saharan Africa but at the same time it's still only one dollar a day. They are barely scraping by and if one day's work is not profitable enough, what can they do? They don't eat.

If you make a product that you can sell to the poorest 1 billion in the world — with even the smallest profit margin, let's say just 1 percent — you've just made a $10 million profit. A lot of multinational corporations aren't thinking along these lines, although there's a growing number of engineers, professors and even some companies now that are saying, "Hey, there's this whole market of people that we can sell these products to."

Q: So, what is Bucknell's role here?

A: I got involved in this type of work during my first year here through the Bucknell Brigade. The El Porvenir community in Nicaragua, where they grow coffee on top of a mountain, was without water for six months of the year. Mike Toole in civil engineering and I worked with four mechanical engineering students and one civil engineering student to design a pumping system to get water to the top of the mountain. It took close to three years for us to get everything done in terms of raising funds, getting everyone on board and actually constructing and implementing everything.

Students in the current millennial generation want to make a difference in the world. They're very community service oriented and need a venue in which they can use their professional training to better serve the community, whether it be the local community or the worldwide community. A lot of these efforts are geared toward education and providing opportunities for our students to make a difference.

In that sense it's the right time, it's the right place. Since the project in Nicaragua, we had a project in Africa where we designed a cart to go behind a bicycle to carry crops and water. Another project is to design affordable eyeglasses for the developing world — about $2 materials, inclusive. The model that we're proposing is to have a few local entrepreneurs make and distribute the glasses at a profit of about $2 per pair of glasses. If they make and distribute eight pairs of glasses a day, they make roughly $8 a day per person, compared to somebody who's making $3 or $2 (a day). In this model you not only provide a business, you also improve someone's vision — hopefully improving literacy rates. That's really exciting for me. We are working in collaboration with Jamie Hendry in the School of Management, and she brings so much to the table in making sure we're thinking about long-term sustainability.

Q: You mentioned two engineering projects — the bicycle cart and the inexpensive eyeglasses. Are there any other projects you're working on?

A: We try to find projects that will have a broad application in the developing world. A new project still in development is a bicycle-powered grain grinder. Two common crops in the developing world are sorghum and millet. They grow reasonably well in dry weather. In Uganda, they use sorghum as a grain to make bread. Women in the community spend on the average about 90 minutes a day grinding with a stone. It's a laborious, backbreaking task. Imagine if you could cut that time down to even 10 or 15 minutes, then you've created an opportunity. One could spend an hour studying, an hour building a business, an hour doing whatever it may be.

In addition, we're also developing an affordable "bicycle taxi" that can carry two kids to and from school. Both of these projects are in support of the Bicycles Against Poverty initiative, but will hopefully be broadly applicable in the developing world.

These projects are complicated from a mechanical engineering perspective; how can you make something for $80 when commercial grinders are several thousand dollars? How can you design them with limited locally available materials and manufacturing processes? I'm not sure if these projects will follow the same model of creating a business for somebody (as we're trying to do with the eyeglasses), but we're trying to establish relationships with NGO's in Uganda to make this happen.

Q: What do students bring to the projects and what do they take away from them?

A: The students bring a lot of different things. These projects are not as technically complex as designing a car, such as an all-terrain vehicle for the Baja competition. You're not using the forefront of technology to design these projects. But to make them economical, to use only locally available materials and processes, to consider the end user — that's real engineering.

What students bring to the table is both their skill set as engineers as well as motivation and excitement. This current millennial generation really wants to see the work of their hands make a difference. My hope is that my students walk away changed people, that they realize that their education is more than to just serve themselves and provide a means to make money and support their families.

Q: Can you give some examples?

A: Take the Nicaragua project, for example. We had four senior mechanical engineering students involved. Rob Gradoville (Class of '07) joined the Peace Corps right after graduation and was in the Dominican Republic for two years. Now he is at the University of Pittsburgh heading up projects with Engineers without Borders and other organizations.

Laura Roberts (Class of '07) is in the Peace Corps in Suriname. She worked with the Kevin Gilmore and Mike Toole from the Civil and Environmental Engineering on a senior design project to bring water to a local community. This project gained a lot of press and was recognized by former President Clinton.

Adam Donato (Class of '07) was working in the Boston area for a few years; he has since gone back to graduate school at Virginia Tech. His long-term goals are to do more of these types of projects, too.

Last year, one of the bicycle project students (Adam Andersen, Class of '10) decided to stay and complete a master's degree to work on the eyeglasses project. I'm hoping I was a small part of that decision. A lot of students are chomping at the bit to get involved with this kind of work, and we're providing an opportunity for them to do what they want to do.

As a faculty member I suppose I'm allowed to be idealistic. When you consider the potential we have to affect students and the directions they'll head in the future, giving them the opportunity to do something like this is highly motivational for me. They can develop a worldview, saying, "Hey, I'm an engineer and I can make a difference to the least privileged people in the world, the smallest people who everyone ignores."

During the summer, we will repost several "Ask the Experts" selected from among our most-read editions. New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters. If you have ideas for future topics or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, contact Molly O'Brien-Foelsch.

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