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Facing Down a Grand Challenge, Rose-Hulman's New Multi-Disciplinary Summer Course

Thursday, July 25, 2013

By Marianne Messina

A group of individuals form two rows and pose for a picture outside
Ten students signed up to help solve one of the
National Academy of Engineering (NAE),
Grand Challenges in an intensive
12-credit summer course, Grand Challenge: Solar Energy

Inside Rose-Hulman's Branam Innovation Center, 10 students have been designing a water delivery system that will give Kenyan villagers access to safe, potable water. The project is part of a course team-taught by Physics Professor Scott Kirkpatrick, English Professor Anneliese Watt and Mechanical Engineering Professor Ashley Bernal. Bernal, who visited Kenya on an exploratory trip last summer, along with the other professors, added a stipulation to the class project: The system the students design must be realistically implementable in Njemps's village located near Lake Baringo in Kenya. Ultimately, the students chose to both filter and pasteurize the water, thus requiring a solar heating component that would allow the project to conform to one of the National Academy of Engineering's Grand Challenges for Engineering: find economical ways to produce solar energy.

Initially, students expected to connect with villagers via cell phone to obtain project details and work out logistics. While cell phones may be the norm in urban areas, undependable electricity and a paucity of cell phones in the target village made direct, real-time communication with the villagers all but impossible. That was the first cultural constraint the team met as students made adjustments to their conceptual solutions in order address real-world implementation. In addition to engineering principles, these students are learning about the "complexity" built into doing business in the 21st century.

Two individuals in red shirts sit at a table with computers in front of them
Chelsie Donnelly(l) and Francis Kimani(r) of Kenya working with other students to craft a video of the project that will inspire NGOs.

In lieu of the cell phone option, the team brought Francis ("Franco") Kimani on board to help them get real and accurate logistical input. A student at Kenya's Egerton University (a school roughly two hours from Njemps's village), Kimani competed against other Kenyan university students for this opportunity to do a three-week project at Rose-Hulman. Chosen for his enthusiasm, Kimani was able to come to Rose-Hulman thanks to funding from the Office of Global Programs and the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Kimani serves as a "reality check" for the team.

"Inviting a student from Kenya to join the program for three weeks," says Bernal, "was instrumental for our students' understanding of difficulties associated with applying a given technology to a different environment/culture." Bernal adds that the resulting "meaningful international experience" is in keeping with Rose-Hulman's strategic goals.

So when the project team decided to use copper tubing, the industry standard conduit for water conduction across the United States, Kimani informed the team that copper would not be obtainable at the site. Thus, the team met the second constraint, materials availability. The team decided they would have to use steel, a more easily obtained but less efficient material that required all new calculations.

The third constraint the team ran into was economy. They had built a large solar collector to ideal specs with the idea of spending around $300 for the materials. When they learned that the average person in the village lived on one dollar a day, they realized that designing to the original budget was just too costly. They had to use different materials and downsize the solar collector. The new materials allowed them to increase the size of the new trough-style collector to gain enough heat to pasteurize and still bring the budget in at around $100.

Background image of garage
Above:Early solar collector deemed too costly.
Below:Yujie He demonstrates an early prototype,
abandoned in favor of the current solar trough
Student stands with upright plywood beams. A fan-like structure is placed at the of one.

The solar Grand Challenge team of 10 students is divided into three subteams, each working on one of the three components of the water filtration system: the gravel-pebble-sand filtration system, the solar trough, and the stand. Yujie He is on the trough team. According to the project manager Phillip Markison, a sophomore mechanical engineering student, as the assembly crew unloaded the piping, they inadvertently got oil residue on their hands prior to handling the solar trough material, resulting in a mass of filmy fingerprints on the solar trough. Yujie He is tasked with cleaning the solar collector of all marks, including fingerprints. "It changes the reflectivity," explains He, a junior electrical engineering student from Shanghai, China. "It's really difficult to clean those fingerprints. Even if you pour water it leaves water marks." Since they can only use locally available cleaning products, Windex is not an option. "We only have soap and water," says He, "limited resources."

With the three parts of the structure somewhat completed, the team has a week to put together an instructional video on how to assemble the filtration system and a set of written instructions. This satisfies an educational goal to aim communications at different audiences. The instructions will go to anyone who decides to implement the project. The video, the group decides, will go out to humanitarian organizations in the hopes of obtaining real funding for the project.

Students are given a lot of latitude to make the project as real as possible. One ambitious student set up a press conference, resulting in news coverage on Terre Haute's Channel 2, WTWO. As the students begin to write their grant proposal targeting humanitarian organizations, the course Professors aren't sure whether the students will request funding to scale production of the systems, or to send a group to Kenya to assemble the project themselves. The course structure allows students to

decide many of the important details for themselves.

The Course
(view course proposal)

Four individuals gather outside and look at structure
Testing the finished solar collector against early projections.
Shown: Julian Sfeir (pink shirt) and Charles Baechler
(blue shirt pointing todevice). Students in the background
are Phillip Markison (black shirt) and Varun Wadhwa.

The Grand Challenge: Solar Energy summer course was also inspired by encouragement from Professor Bill Kline, PhD, Dean of Innovation and Engagement. In a workshop sponsored by Kline, Bernal, Kirkpatrick, and Watt made a commitment to the multi-disciplinary format and agreed to the team-teaching approach.

By taking this intensive, hands-on course during the summer students earn 12 credits as it fulfills the RH330 Communication Objectives, the ME497 Technical Elective Objectives, and the PH490 Science Elective Objectives. The course plan outlines exactly how students will achieve these objectives.

For the professors, this course was not just about 12 credits served up in short order, it was about giving students a chance to see the positive impact they can have on the world. It was about offering unique experiences that could go on a student's resume. "The Grand Challenges provides one excellent framework for integrating a humanitarian aspect into engineering curriculum," says Bernal. This gives Rose-Hulman students the soft skills so in demand in today's work market.

"We hoped that employers would see the experience as a valuable one," says Bernal, "comparable to a workplace project experience."

In turn, the professors learned from the course themselves.

"Personally as a newer faculty member," says Bernal, "it has been great to see different teaching styles and reflect on incorporating aspects into my teaching. In addition, we have noted different terminology for communicating among physicists and engineers as well as multiple approaches/techniques for solving the same problem."

Team Professors Reflect on the Grand Challenge Course

Three faculty members sit around a table with computers out in front of them
Three professors: Professor Scott Kirkpatrick (l),
Professor Ashley Bernal (c), Professor Anneliese Watt (r).

Professor Scott Kirkpatrick, PhD, Physics

"It wasn't any single person's idea. It was a lot of "yes and" encouragement, and before we knew it, a general outline of how we could pull off a course involving multiple professors from different disciplines was created. The [Venn Diagram] in our course write-up, nicely indicates the large amount of common ground we all have.

I hope projects like this can eventually make a difference in the world."

Professor Anneliese Watt, PhD, Humanities and Social Sciences

"The team-teaching approach is time-consuming but really invaluable for both the professors and the students -- increasing enjoyment, building knowledge and skills, and producing better final products."

"Course concerns such as culture, communication, teaming, critical thinking, and problem-solving are shared concerns for stand-alone courses in the humanities, engineering, science, and math-what may be the key innovation in this program is that those concerns aren't artificially separated by course boundaries, but rather tackled within a shared space."