UD engineering students travel abroad to understand the complexities of solving international challenges

For the first time since early 2020, University of Delaware engineering students flew across the Atlantic Ocean to get hands-on experience with some of the most impactful engineering challenges around the world.

From Bolivia to Malawi to South Africa, students learned what it takes to not only solve problems, but to understand the cultural and societal differences of working with communities and experts around the globe. Those lessons from around the world are increasingly relevant closer to home.

“Even in the United States, solutions are starting to move in the direction of listening to people and hearing what they need instead of spotting a problem and applying a cookie-cutter approach,” said Jennie Saxe, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

UD’s College of Engineering is expanding its global engineering approach both in and outside of the classroom with the international perspectives that faculty can bring as well as outreach to communities through the University’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UD) program. That means not just thinking about the technology, but the people, too.

In Bolivia, a country in west-central South America, students from UD, Dartmouth College, Eastern Mennonite University and Georgia Institute of Technology — supported by experts from Engineers in Action — spent six weeks helping construct a 113-meter-long pedestrian suspension bridge in Jatun Pampa that will allow hundreds of locals to cross a dangerous river that becomes impassable during the 150-day-long rainy season in the region.

“I chose to study engineering because it’s so versatile, but one of the things you get working on a project like this that you couldn’t otherwise have is the cultural understanding and opportunity to connect with people,” said Megan Hamilton, an environmental engineering senior and the UD student lead on the project. “Seeing what brings a community together, and being able to celebrate and immerse yourself in a new language, that’s an experience you can’t get at home. It was so amazing and I feel so lucky and grateful for this opportunity.”

A 113-meter-long pedestrian suspension bridge in Bolivia. With Brick supports, heavy wire and wooden platform.

This 113-meter-long pedestrian suspension bridge in Bolivia will allow hundreds of locals to cross a dangerous river. It was constructed through a recent Engineers Without Borders project, in partnership with Engineers in Action, involving students from the University of Delaware, Dartmouth College, Eastern Mennonite University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

In Malawi, a country in East Africa, engineering students with the EWB-UD program finally got to see first-hand what they’d been doing virtually over the last few years. In the midst of the pandemic, students worked virtually with contractors to repair 12 drinking water wells. During their trip this summer, they were able to test water in 16 existing wells, work that had begun on the other side of the world, and discovered that the local governments were so pleased with the rehabilitation outcomes, that they were looking to take on the work themselves into the future.

“That was awesome to hear that what we’d done in this one place was working so well,” said Hannah Bockius, a senior studying biomedical engineering. “Sustainability is super important.”

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, South Africa, four undergraduate biomedical engineering students from UD, including Bockius, and three University of Pennsylvania students toured clinics, met with physicians and residents and considered the challenges and socioeconomic impacts of developing medical devices in low-resource settings.

They saw first-hand what it’s like to navigate “load-shedding” events, where countries with limited access to power schedule blackouts, typically for about four hours or more. Learning to shower in a matter of minutes and conserve electricity for hours on end illustrated how different — and often challenging — life is in many parts of the world.

But it’s not just about the physical lack of resources, like the inability to flip a switch to turn on a power source, but also the cultural differences in terms of what people find acceptable, such as the use of different types of medicines or medical devices.

Shown (from left to right) are Hannah Bockius (UD), Rohan Chhaya (Penn), Ryan Lim (Penn), Erika Siegel (UD), Charise Jeudy (UD), Victoria Curry (Penn), Hayley Sussman (UD) and Professor Julie Karand (UD).

A small group of students from the University of Delaware and the University Pennsylvania traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, this summer to learn more about designing medical devices in low-resources settings. Shown (from left to right) are Hannah Bockius (UD), Rohan Chhaya (Penn), Ryan Lim (Penn), Erika Siegel (UD), Charise Jeudy (UD), Victoria Curry (Penn), Hayley Sussman (UD) and Professor Julie Karand (UD).

“Work like this allows us to have empathy and understand the cultural setting of international device design,” said Julie Karand, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and faculty adviser for EWB-UD. “There’s so much more to a medical product than how many amps of electricity it uses.”

Focusing on global engineering

Engineering education at UD isn’t just about solving problems at home, where American users are looking for American-made devices to boost the American experience. To have true international impact, faculty, staff and students need international experience.

It’s also not about traveling and playing tourist, though. When students travel abroad, whether through the EWB-UD program, a formal study abroad program or this year’s exploratory trip to Cape Town, they’re immersing themselves in a different culture and trying to learn about the disparities found in different places and different environments, explained Karand, who also is a board member of the nonprofit BETA, International and a member of the Africa-U.S. Fellows Program hosted through the RICE360 Program.

She said she is hoping to develop not only more courses, but also a new study abroad experience in the near future.

International experiences also come to UD’s campus in Newark through the courses Karand and Saxe teach in the College of Engineering and the college’s Capstone Design Program, as well as through extracurricular workshops. The next Design for the Developing World workshop for early-career science and engineering students to learn how to design medical devices for developing country contexts is scheduled for Oct. 22-23.

A hand-pump water well in Malawi.

This photo shows one of more than a dozen drinking water wells that the University of Delaware’s Engineers Without Borders Team worked on in Malawi.

“Students don’t necessarily have to go abroad, we have that full spectrum of opportunity,” said Karand.

Meanwhile, Maleshigo “Mali” Mabye from Cape Town, South Africa, will work this year as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence and help boost the global engineering educational opportunities for Delaware students. During the fall semester, she will teach a course on low-resource medical design at UD, and then head to Delaware State University to teach the same course during the spring semester.

“Global engineering is important because it fosters a collaborative environment because you have to speak to the social advocates on the ground,” said Mabye, who has come to Delaware from working at the University of Cape Town. “You also have to consider that you’re not just there to do what you’re doing and then just leave. You have to think about the impact. That’s a very important part of thinking globally.”

Mabye’s sponsorship through the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Program (which is supported by both universities) is just the latest in Karand’s efforts to bring a truly global engineering focus to UD.

“These students are so privileged to have these ideas brought into their minds while they’re still undergraduates because it formulates the way they think going forward,” said Mabye. “It’s essentially important to think about the social aspect of the lives your work affects.”

Designing for the real world

College of Engineering students participating in senior design challenges for the first time in 2021 had the opportunity to work with international sponsors, thanks to Karand’s efforts to expand global engineering approaches within the college.

Those efforts expanded this summer when a small group of students got to prepare ahead of time and travel overseas for their capstone projects. That group included Hannah Bockius, who’s also an EWB-UD project manager for the Malawi project.

(from left to right) students Dylan Belluardo, UD graduate Jerel Okonski, Carley WIlliamson, Charlie Rich of CA Rich Consultants, Charlotte Gottilla and Hannah Bockius.

The University of Delaware’s Engineers Without Borders Malawi team, which worked on drinking water wells during the summer and for the past couple of years, include (from left to right) students Dylan Belluardo, UD graduate Jerel Okonski, Carley WIlliamson, Charlie Rich of CA Rich Consultants, Charlotte Gottilla and Hannah Bockius.

The Pittsburgh native is studying biomedical engineering with a double major in global studies, focusing on health. While EWB projects like the one underway in Malawi can offer that immediate experience, her trip to Cape Town was a little bit different.

There, communities struggling with the lingering effects of apartheid may have technical advances, but no access to adequately use them.

“As engineers, we need to be a lot more aware of the humanities when we’re designing, building and interacting,” she said. “You need to focus on what your user needs more than your end goal.”

Her studies at UD have been very patient- and user-design focused, which she appreciates. She said sometimes people can get caught up in chasing the most technologically advanced or exciting thing, but that the needed answers can sometimes be much simpler than scientists may think.

“I’m really excited to get started on a project,” said Bockius, the Distinguished Scholar and Honors student, whose trip abroad was funded by UD’s Honors College. “And also to get a better understanding of some of the global health problems in Cape Town.”

This year marked Bockius’s first trip abroad ever, and EWB-UD’s first since early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biomedical engineering sophomore Charise Jeudy also joined Bockius in Cape Town, thanks to funding from the RISE (Resources to Inspire Successful Engineers) program, and the experience led to her shifting plans for what she wants to do with her career, she said.

A team of students from the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania, supported by Professor Julie Karand, join three clinicians they interviewed at a dental facility in Cape Town, South Africa. The country’s flag can be seen in the back.

A team of students from the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania, supported by Professor Julie Karand, join three clinicians they interviewed at a dental facility in Cape Town, South Africa. The country’s flag can be seen in the back.

“I want to work more directly with people,” Jeudy said, noting that she’s shifting plans from working in robotics to likely pursuing a career in anesthesiology. “After this trip and talking to people on it, I feel like there was something really special about being able to look somebody in their eyes and talk to them about what their life is like, rather than reading about it. I learned a lot about myself and the world, too.”

Crossing borders

This summer marked Assistant Professor Sonia Bansal’s first time working with the EWB-UD program, but not her first time being abroad. Much of Bansal’s family is from India, and she’s already visited many places where the health system is very different from much of the United States, the biomedical engineer said.

With so many trips going on simultaneously, Bansal stepped in as a travel adviser for the Malawi project team. She said she couldn’t have asked for a better group of students, and that it was wonderful for them to finally see the tangible impact of the work they’ve been doing.

“It’s an abstract project until you’re physically there,” she said. “They just learned so much. The students were very moved by the experience. I think the biggest thing was that they all recognized what a giant privilege it is to get to do something like this.”

Jerel Okonski (left) and Hannah Bockius sit on the ground while conducting water tests with a hand operated pump in the background.

University of Delaware graduate Jerel Okonski (left) and senior biomedical engineering student Hannah Bockius conduct well testing in Malawi this past summer as part of UD’s Engineers Without Borders program.

Back in her classroom, Bansal aims to push the students in her design-based classes to think a little more globally.

“When it comes to biodesign and medical device design, every area has different resources,” she said. “You can’t assume there will be electricity in some places. You can’t assume there will be clean water in some places. That’s why it’s super important for our students to understand that diversity is not just what’s happening in the U.S. — it’s global.”

For example, Bansal said she can teach students the difference between medical device regulations under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) versus the European Union, which are both very different from how things are done in Asian and African countries. Understanding all of those differences can help engineering students consider how to build things that help all people in all places.

“Diversity in experience really helps you grow,” she said. “It’s important to think about the experiences you don’t have and try to get them. I think this trip is a huge opportunity for our students to have that diverse experience.”

And these experiences aren’t just for engineering students. Anyone at UD can join Engineers Without Borders at UD, which also is in need of students who feel comfortable and excel with non-engineering tasks such as project management or marketing.

“The skills I’ve used the most and applied the most are business skills, like planning meetings, sending emails, working in meetings where people’s first language isn’t English,” said Bockius. “Those skills are what you’ll use and build on, which is really valuable no matter what industry you go into.”

Article by Maddy Lauria | Photos submitted by students | Illustration by Joy Smoker | October 21, 2022