The Michigan Engineer News Center

Going Beyond Eco-Friendly

"Sustainability" is a hot word right now, but what does it really mean to make a "sustainable solution"? Michigan Engineers are focusing on the "triple-bottom-line" to solve problems around the world.| Long Read

Sustainability is a hot word right now. Everywhere you look, you see people, products and institutions touting their “green” practices with labels that read “environmentally-friendly” or “low impact.”

But, if you consider the full meaning of the word “sustainable,” it doesn’t boil down to just being eco-friendly. It’s about much more than that.

“When you start to unpack the word sustainable and think about what it really means, a big part of that becomes creating a system that will really be used and maintained,” said James Holloway, vice provost for Global and Engaged Education at the University of Michigan. “If it’s not used then it’s not sustainable. That’s where understanding your end user becomes so important – if you want them to actually use the product you’re creating, you have to understand their culture and what they value.”

Michigan Engineering students are being trained to do just that. Through a combination of in-class learning and external hands-on experiences, students at the U-M College of Engineering are being taught to look past the obvious answers to create sustainable solutions that will last.

We’ve heard it before – a group of college students catch wind of a problem, band together to come up with a solution, take it to the community – and leave.

What we don’t hear about is what happens next, and how the technology sits unused, collecting dust and rust until it falls apart.

Kathleen Sienko calls it the “hit and run.”

“Students have good intentions, but oftentimes enter a community to try to help out and then retreat after a week or two and move on to something else,” said Sienko, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

That happens when you sit here in Ann Arbor saying 'well those villages need this,' let's go install it. But they haven't really explored the environment and understood the social issues and cultural issues to really know how to solve the problem.James Holloway, vice provost for Global and Engaged Education

Avoiding the 'Hit and Run'

She’s seen it first-hand. As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sienko traveled to India to conduct clinical training, collecting medical census data with a team of community healthcare researchers. Sienko noticed a pile of dusty palm pilots in the corner and asked why they weren’t being used.

The devices had been designed by engineering students to help with the data collection, said the workers, who had subsequently removed the batteries and claimed they didn’t work. Why? They were afraid the new technology would make transcribing the data unnecessary, and therefore they would lose their jobs.

It’s a perfect example of students swooping in to solve a problem, but not actually talking to the people who would be using the technology to discover their needs and concerns, said Sienko.

“It was at that point in time that I realized how important it is to truly understand the needs of the end users,” said Sienko. For the past six years, she has led interdisciplinary teams of U-M students in both engineering design coursework and month-long field site work in resource-limited areas, engineering and re-engineering healthcare technologies in collaboration with the end users. She also acts as an Advisory Board Member for Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives (M-HEAL), which provides resources for student projects working to develop sustainable solutions for healthcare challenges in low-resource settings.

“The first thing we try to teach them is they cannot be the person who says ‘I’m here to solve your problem,'” said Aileen Huang-Saad, M-HEAL’s faculty adviser and an associate professor of engineering practice at U-M. “We want them to be a part of the team and say I’m here to work with you and learn about your problems.”

Another organization, Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory (BLUElab), provides the same type of support system for student teams working to find sustainable solutions in developing nations. Since its inception in 2003, BLUElab has grown into a large umbrella organization, acting as an incubator for more than 10 engineering projects.

As former president of BLUElab and leader of its Woven Wind team, Sita Syal has seen how much a design can – and should – change once you are on the ground. She and her team spent a year working with the non-profit agency Appropriate Technology Collaborative to create wind turbines to help provide electricity for the town of Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan in Guatemala before traveling to the region themselves.

The idea was a good one: create wind turbines using blades made of woven material. The blades could be built by the town’s women, who were expert weavers, thereby helping to support the local economy in addition to providing electricity.

But their first trip there revealed a cultural need they hadn’t anticipated. The residents weren’t looking to power their lights – they were happy with the traditional methods of doing that. What they really wanted was to charge their cell phones so they could communicate with family and friends in distant towns.

“We just didn’t anticipate that at all,” said Syal, who is pursuing her master’s degree in Energy Systems Engineering. So the team had to adapt their design to accommodate the change in demand.

“That happens when you sit here in Ann Arbor saying, ‘Well those villages need this, let’s go install it,'” said Holloway. “But they haven’t really explored the environment and understood the social issues and cultural issues to really know how to solve the problem.”

To combat this, students are encouraged to use the “triple-bottom-line” approach to designing. Coined by John Elkington in the 1990s, the concept encourages organizations to go beyond the traditional “bottom line” of profit and loss and instead consider three different measures of impact: people, the planet and the pocketbook.

“We can see throughout modern history that the environmental and social integrity are often hurt by the ‘bottom-line’ of money,” said Steven Skerlos, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor for mechanical, civil and environmental engineering at U-M. “Conversely, design can’t just be about the environment. It’s got to work in the market and it also has to be good for the people.”

Skerlos, BLUElab’s faculty advisor and director of Sustainability Education Programs at the College of Engineering, says that holistic approach to designing a sustainable solution is integral for students to learn. “We’re trying to teach our students how to understand and make those tough choices. There are engineering decisions to be made, but also environmental decisions with real human consequences.”

We can see throughout modern history that the environmental and social integrity are often hurt by the ‘bottom-line' of money. Conversely, design can't just be about the environment. It's got to work in the market and it also has to be good for the people.Steven Skerlos, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor for mechanical, civil and environmental engineering

Learning from their mistakes

The first thing we try to teach them is they cannot be the person who says ‘I'm here to solve your problem'. We want them to be a part of the team and say I'm here to work with you and learn about your problems.Aileen Huang-Saad, associate professor of Engineering Practice

Of course, despite their best efforts, failure is always a possibility.

BLUElab team Hagley Gap has been struggling with that for five years. Partnering with the Blue Mountain Project, the engineering students have been working on providing clean water solutions to the community of Hagley Gap, Jamaica. The problem is, the community didn’t want it.

“A lot of the community members are distrustful at best of outsiders coming in and forcing a technology on them,” said Michael O’Connor, former Hagley Gap project leader and recent graduate of chemical engineering. “The biosand filter technology worked, but the cultural implementation did not.” This was particularly surprising to the students given they were working with an Nonprofit Government Organization with a constant presence in the community.

The team found that, although they were fulfilling a real need, it was not one that was accepted or even understood by the community. Their biosand water filter quickly fell into disuse. No one was interested in maintaining it – or even using it. The community just didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with the water they drank. “They told us we had weak stomachs,” said O’Connor.

As a result, the team collected their own data from the community and rethought their design solution with their end-users in mind. They went back to the community again the next year with an even broader approach, including an education program to accompany the technology. They hope that, by opening the dialogue between themselves and the community, they will create a real connection between the presence of bacteria in their water and the predictable illnesses from which they regularly suffer.

“Every failure is just a step in the right direction,” said O’Connor. “Our team is full of Michigan Engineers, and we don’t give up so easily. I personally think we benefit from this process as much as they do.”

Failure is an integral part of the learning process, said Holloway.

“We all learn more from failure than success. One of the things I tell students at orientation is that, no one wants to pay you to do things they already know how to do. They want you to learn how to solve problems that no one knows how to solve.”

Scaling up the solution

Solving the difficult problems is one thing, but making the solutions work on a larger scale is another. In the real world, students have much more to consider than just the “engineering problem,” said Skerlos.

“The engineering work that these students are doing honestly isn’t that hard. But getting them to work in the region, and getting them to think about real needs and solving them with the materials available and with the people that need it – that’s the hard part.”

CentriCycle, a recent “graduate” of the M-HEAL organization, is taking that next step and scaling up their solution. The team recently formed a non-profit start-up company to manufacture and distribute their manual centrifuge product – and they’re moving to India to do it.

CentriCycle was born as a response to the need for basic diagnostic tools in rural India. In collaboration with the non-profit group Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, CentriCycle worked to create a manual centrifuge that could be used by traveling healthcare workers to diagnose blood diseases such as anemia, diabetes and hepatitis in resource-limited areas.

While a manual centrifuge is not a new idea, the team worked hard with the healthcare providers in India to create one that would actually work for them.

“We found that something as simple as needing a flat tabletop to put the centrifuge on just wasn’t available,” said Carolyn Yarina, co-founder of CentriCycle and recent graduate of chemical engineering. So the team started simple – with a bicycle wheel. Their thought was that bicycle parts are so prevalent in India, it would be a sensible use of a regional commodity. But, they didn’t anticipate the size of their workers.

“When we got there and saw these petite Indian women trying to lift our product, we knew something had to change,” said Yarina. CentriCycle has gone through many revisions since then, refining their original bike idea into a streamlined plastic device that will be locally sourced and manufactured in India. The team is now ready to launch into a full-scale business – a step many of these student projects haven’t been ready to take yet.

“If it’s something that people truly value, then they will pay for it. CentriCycle is moving in that direction. They understood the need, developed the technology to meet the need and now they’re starting the next step of creating a business, which is really exciting,” said Holloway. “Developing a revenue flow to support the deployment and long-term maintenance of a technology is a part of sustaining it.”

Yarina said the entrepreneurship tools available at Michigan were integral to her team’s ability to take this step. CentriCycle was able to take advantage of a variety of entrepreneurial and business tools made available through the College’s partnership with other programs such as the Center for Entrepreneurship, TechArb and Ross School of Business. They also used resources at the Wilson Student Team Project Center and Digital Media Commons to work on each round of prototyping.

“I can honestly say that I don’t think I could have done this at any other school,” said Yarina, who credits the U-M’s multidisciplinary and risk-taking spirit for spurring her forward.

Bringing it all together

A culture of risk-taking – that’s what we’re creating, said Huang-Saad. And the students are grabbing the reins and running with it.

“Every time you turn around, they’re doing something,” said Huang-Saad. “They’re the fastest integrators I’ve ever seen. They take technology, and their own personal passions and make new things. In a way, the world can’t soak up everything they’re creating fast enough.”

“I realized when I started BLUElab that our students are not only brilliant, they are capable and eager to make a real difference in the world,” said Skerlos. “There are so many tough problems out there that they could be tackling both at home and abroad. I thought, if we could just connect them with the needs out there, good things are bound to happen.”

The engineering work that these students are doing honestly isn't that hard. But getting them to work in the region, and getting them to think about real needs and solving them with the materials available and with the people that need it – that's the hard part.Steven Skerlos, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor for mechanical, civil and environmental engineering
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