Harvey Mudd College (HMC) engineering majors Annika Eberle ‘09, Autumn Petros-Good ‘09 and Rob Best ‘10—all members of the environmental group Engineers for a Sustainable World/Mudders Organizing for Sustainability Solutions (ESW/MOSS)—spent 16 days in Kenya, Africa, on an educational mission in January.
Setting out for the remote village of Ngomano to help the Clay International Secondary School master a solar water purification method, the group returned to HMC with lessons learned, amazing memories, and an appreciation for the education and experience they’ve gained both at home and abroad.
“Having this as my first big out-of-culture experience is quite the story,” said Petros-Good, who plans to apply to graduate school and the Peace Corps after HMC. “I had to adapt very quickly to different cultural norms, different ways of doing things, and a wake-at-sunrise-sleep-at-sunset schedule, which was perhaps the most difficult part.
“[But] I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I learned so much about how life can be different for other people and learned first-hand how many different ways there are for me to help people in developing countries using my engineering degree.”
The students, who were accompanied to Kenya by HMC trustee Andrea “Andy” Leebron-Clay, her husband James “Jim” Clay and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Susan Martonosi, constructed a solar still to purify the school’s water and taught a course on solar distillation to the teenage Kenyan students.
“The water, which the locals often have to dig up to 5 feet to reach, is sometimes too salty to drink,” explained Eberle, who plans to attend graduate school in structural or biomechanical engineering and then work to develop renewable energy solutions for the developing world. “Solar distillation utilizes the same method employed in the natural water cycle. First, the sun’s energy heats the water so that it evaporates. The evaporated water then condenses onto a sheet of plastic or glass that redirects the water to a clean container, leaving the salts behind.”
But building a solar still in Kenya wasn’t quite as easy for the HMC group as it was back home. (Eberle and Best had constructed a still as part of a research project last summer.)
“One of the biggest lessons I learned as an engineer was that materials we take for granted as being available here are hard to find in Kenya,” said Best, current ESW/MOSS president who hopes to eventually work in green design or environmental consulting. “For example, we couldn’t find plywood in [the village] Wote, so we had to build our prototype solar still out of an old plastic wood-glue drum. The experience of standing in front of a hardware store redesigning our solar still to fit the materials they had there was something I will never forget.”
After wrestling with a saw for about a day and enlisting the help of their skilled guide Benson Mutua, the in-country director for the non-profit organization Project Education, Inc. (PEI)—founded by Leebron-Clay, Debra Akre and Jeana King—the engineering students had constructed a functioning solar still.
“We had some of the students taste the water we produced, and they informed us that there was no salt in it, which was the goal,” said Petros-Good, who founded ESW/MOSS with Eberle in 2006. “Even though the final product didn’t look particularly fancy, at least it was functional.”
Martonosi, who served as a Peace Corp volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, and visited Kenya in 2001 as a tourist, can vouch for the fact that flexibility is essential in Africa.
“Traveling in Africa is not easy,” she said. “The unexpected can be expected to happen, and one always has to be good-natured about these things. The students adapted so well to the culture and climate, and were a joy to travel with.
“Moreover, their flexibility and creativity paid off in spades when they were designing the solar still. At the Kenyan hardware store, the students had to think on their feet to figure out how to use available materials to design and build a comparable still. This demonstrated how well the HMC curriculum had prepared them to leverage their engineering know-how in creative ways to solve a problem.”
In the end it all worked out, and the HMC group hopes the project inspired the Kenyan students.
“I hope that the students understood the principles of the solar still, and saw that they could use what they had learned in their homes with their families,” said Petros-Good. “I know that a few of them really enjoyed our design project, and I hope that some of them will pursue engineering as a possible career field.”
Aside from working and teaching, the HMC group also had the opportunity to run with zebras, gazelles and impala; visit an elephant orphanage in Nairobi; and spend time on safari and barter in a region inhabited by Maasai people—a tribe that often appears in pictures of African culture because of its members’ colorful style of dress, beadwork and jewelry, and stretched earlobes.
“The trip was amazing,” noted Eberle, whose international travels also include Cambodia and Singapore, where she participated in Global Clinic projects during the summer of 2008. “The Kenyan people were more welcoming than I ever could have imagined. Being able to see all of the wildlife in Maasai Mara was great. And having the opportunity to practice my engineering skills in the field was challenging, but rewarding.”
The people of Kenya made the biggest impression on Petros-Good: “The most potent lesson for me was that people are people, no matter where you are. I was able to communicate with people with a background completely different from mine, who grew up speaking a tribal language and herding cattle, simply by using a few Swahili phrases, a lot of smiles and gestures. Even though many of the people I met are poor by American, or even world, standards, they still find things to be happy about, and they’re still incredibly friendly, which I wasn’t expecting.”
Follow-up projects for the Kenyan solar still or other engineering systems that could ultimately be implemented in the Ngomano village could be on the horizon for other HMC students as well.
According to Best, ESW/MOSS hopes to continue its partnership with the Clay International Secondary School and would like Kenya to become an annual trip where HMC students solve an existing engineering problem.
The school was established in 2005, as part of PEI, which seeks to increase the availability of education to impoverished students through parent participation and community development in Kenya.
“We were told before we went that once you visit, Africa gets into your blood,” Best said. “Having been there, it’s definitely true. The laid-back lifestyle, the concept of ‘Africa time’ (no deadlines), the general friendliness and genuine appreciation of help and knowledge, and the vast expanse of open space are things I will never forget.”
“Sometimes I despair about the future of the world,” added trustee Leebron-Clay. “There is too much to do and the problems seem too complex for any of us to solve. Traveling with this group of Mudd Engineers for a Sustainable World not only gave me optimism that smart and committed people can change the future, but a new vision of the world through their eyes. If there is anybody reading this that doubts the strength of the next generation, I suggest two weeks in Africa with Mudders.”
Support for the HMC group and their solar distillation project was provided by The Clay Foundation, founded by Leebron-Clay and her husband Jim; HMC’s Shanahan Student-Directed Project Fund; and the HMC 2020 Strategic Vision Fund.
An online gallery of photos from the Kenya trip is available here.
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