Using science and engineering to find solutions

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28 October 2013

Cathy O'Riordan grinding coffee on an Engineers Without Boarders trip to Ethiopia. When I think about what originally drew me to science and engineering, it was coming up with ideas that led to solutions. As a child, I was always looking for ways to fix things and improve processes to make them more efficient. There were always things that needed improving in the chaotic household that I shared with very busy physician parents and five siblings. When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, my father, who was also trained in math and physics, got creative with new ways to save energy. He showed us how to build homemade solar heating boxes (Plexiglas-covered wooden boxes attached to the roof then painted black with forced air flowing through them) and inexpensive heat-sink insulation (several hundred water-filled plastic milk cartons lined our enclosed front porch as an air lock against the cold). We even recycled old venetian blinds and painted one side black to capture heat in the windows during the day. One of my favorite “solutions” was taking a pick ax to the basement floor to dig a well and reach the water table (down only a few feet) so that we could water the lawn and vegetable garden.

Since those early childhood memories, I have been fortunate to share my search for solutions with communities in different settings. My engineering and research career has taken me to a small-town factory in Ohio, to water treatment facilities in the United States and Europe, and to other places where science and engineering can be applied to make systems more effective and improve lives.

 Catherine O'Riordan Earlier this year, I was fortunate to become involved with a remarkable program that teaches undergraduate students in science and engineering how to work with communities in the developing world to help them find solutions for their challenges. I worked with a team of engineers (students and professionals) from the University of Maryland chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB) to advance engineering solutions in a small town in Ethiopia.The chapter has been working with this particular town for over three years and is now preparing to launch its fourth town infrastructure improvement project.

Each project is conceived of jointly—the volunteers work only on solutions that the town leaders feel is a high priority. The project must be limited in scope so that the students can complete construction during a several-week period, and the town must also participate in the construction and commit to taking on future maintenance. Once the need is identified, the volunteers get to work, coming up with simple design solutions that can be constructed at low cost using local materials. The UMD-EWB chapter has worked on projects in Burkina Faso, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Thailand.

Scenes from Ethiopia

Teams of students and their mentors have built water purification systems, solar power stations, and basic civil infrastructure (bridges, etc). Through these projects, the chapter has worked to build capacity and improve the lives of many thousands of people. You can learn more about the work of this chapter here: http://www.ewb.umd.edu/.

 Catherine O'RiordanThe week that I spent in Ethiopia, working with the community to assess past projects and future needs, reminded me again of why I went into engineering—finding good solutions takes an understanding of the environment and the constraints, and often, the simplest solutions are the best ones. Working with such energetic and creative undergraduate engineering students gives me hope for the future. You can read an account of my recent trip to Ethiopia to assess some of these projects in the Points of View section of Physics Today online (PTOL):

“Our Engineers Without Borders team arrived in Ethiopia on a rainy Monday morning. Summer rainfall in the Horn of Africa is driven by the southwesterly winds from the South Atlantic Ocean. The rainy season starts in May, so by mid-July, there has already been considerable precipitation: Approximately 1100 mm falls on the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, each year; 800 mm between June and September. . . Continue reading at PTOL.