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New EED course combines humanitarianism with engineering and business savvy

Dr Greg Bixler stands with the project team on site in EthiopiaThe LifePump project implemented in Ethiopia; engineers and stakeholders are pictured (Dr. Bixler is in the hat).

The Department of Engineering Education (EED) is offering a new course: “Engineering 5194: Appropriate Technology for Developing Countries.”

Through participation in the course, students learn problem-solving and product design methods, and they also learn how market-driven solutions can substantially improve the quality of life for people in developing nations. Dr. Greg Bixler, the course creator and instructor, has long been interested in humanitarian engineering, such as projects to provide potable water to people in developing nations. In addition to teaching students about technology, he says, the new course “is a kind of business class for non-business majors.  [It teaches] stuff I wish I had known when I was their age.”

Students sitting at a large tabletop working on a projectMegan Pearson and Austin Prokup work in the lab in ENGR 5194 (Spring 2016).One of the common misconceptions about Humanitarian engineering is that it is all about “MacGyvering” solutions to problems, which means creatively utilizing whatever low-cost materials are available to create essential products or services ("MacGyver" comes from a television show about an ingenious problem-solver). For example, the “Liter of Light” project provides a low-cost method of lighting homes without electricity.

Dr. Bixler thinks MacGyvering can be a part of the solution, but agrees with those who say that the key to large-scale progress is to harness the power of markets. 

His curriculum includes readings from the book The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for 3 Billion People

Big businesses are becoming more and more interested in serving markets in developing nations, which have billions of potential customers.  The trouble is, they often know little about the needs or practical realities of these customers.  This gap in understanding is where teams of multidisciplinary humanitarian professionals (engineers, architects, business majors, etc.) can help—they visit people in developing nations, listen to them, assess their needs, develop goods and services, and, most importantly, create business plans.

Rather than focusing on small-scale fixes, The Business Solution to Poverty advocates creating goods and services that can be made profitable and reproduced on a large scale, then attracting investors from large companies.  This practice allows designers to go beyond improvised solutions and to solve problems with robust and cutting edge technology (of course, maintenance cost and general sustainability must be factored in the equation).  It also injects money into local economies, thereby helping people in developing nations lift themselves out of poverty.    An example of this approach is the LifePump, a hand-powered water pump created by the Christian nonprofit group Design Outreach (which Dr. Bixler co-founded). 

In addition to gaining access to new markets, companies are increasingly looking to make a positive difference in the world.  (Since Millennials are increasingly concerned about the same thing, this allows companies to strengthen their brands and attract diverse talent.) Thus, Engineering 5194 enriches students and makes them more marketable to employers for a number of reasons. The course:

  • provides practice in multidisciplinary teamwork,
  • gives students experience in the globalized marketplace,
  • allows students to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world situation and
  • provides an experience that is both intellectually challenging and personally fulfilling.

ENGR 5194: Appropriate Technology for Developing Countries

Course Description: This course is designed to provide applied knowledge of appropriate technology product development for people in developing countries. Commercializing products helps to ensure long-term sustainability, and this course will focus on such market driven solutions for community development. 3 credit hours.

Prerequisites: ENGR 1182 or ENGR 1282 or graduate student standing or permission of instructor.

For additional information, please contact Dr. Greg Bixler