Students use engineering skills to help aid a village in Senegal

The students and faculty members meet with residents of Ngohe, Senegal.

Just days before the start of spring semester, as many students were already back on campus or packing up in their hometowns, five seniors were halfway across the world in Africa, learning how residents of a remote village live daily without electricity or running water—and how the students could use their engineering knowledge to help.

The five chemical engineering majors—Robert Armstrong, Timothy Hunt, Andrew Maibach, Mallory Miller and Sean Mulligan—traveled with chemical engineering professor Daniel Lacks and postdoctoral researcher/adjunct professor Mamadou Sow to a rural village outside of Touba, Senegal, where Sow’s cousin is the teacher. The experience was part of the capstone design course in the Department of Chemical Engineering—a course in which most students work on projects with local companies such as Lubrizol, Marathon Oil or Avery-Dennison.

But when Sow organized a trip to Senegal, Armstrong, Hunt, Maibach, Miller and Mulligan opted to go along. So rather than working on a more traditional design project, these five are working to develop ways to make everyday tasks a little easier for the residents of Ngohe.

While on the trip, the group met with village leaders and community members to learn about their needs, from health issues to lack of water. For example, the village doesn’t even have a water well; residents must ride in a donkey cart or walk several kilometers to the nearest well to bring it back, Lacks said.

Additionally, though they do not have electricity, many residents have cell phones. But charging these cell phones is impossible without electricity, so charging the battery requires a 20-kilometer donkey cart trip to the nearest city (Touba), where they leave it to charge. “It’s a day-long if not two-day-long extravaganza just to charge a battery, and that’s their communication with the outside world,” Maibach said.

The students hope they may be able to create a way to aid the residents with this need, by converting mechanical energy to electrical energy to charge cell phones at a low cost.

This issue, while seemingly minor when compared to others such as disease control and water needs, is crucial, Maibach said. “It’s a stepping stone to getting more things you need—getting in touch with more people, getting more resources. It can start to pave the pathway.”

Additionally, the students decided on this or a similar project because they also met with community leaders and faculty at the University of Dakar to discuss socioeconomic issues that might complicate their designs, Maibach said.

Learning about these potential difficulties was a key learning lesson for the students. “You want to go out there, you want to cure the world and you want to bring everybody up to speed with the western world, but there’s so many other issues that play into that,” Maibach said.

The socioeconomic issues were just one of many things the students learned about the culture while there; Sow planned many activities for them each day, including African dancing and playing the Djembe drums, Miller said.

Plus, they got to visit with the people in the village. Although there was an obvious language barrier, Maibach said activities such as an impromptu soccer game helped bridge the gap with residents in the village.

Miller, too, said staying in the village was the highlight of her visit because she was able “to learn about the daily lives of the people that live there,” she explained. “It makes you really appreciate the things we take for granted.”

Those things include items such as basic school supplies such as pencils, notebooks and even calculators, which the Case Western Reserve University students brought to the Senegalese students. (See their reaction in the video below.)

As much of an impact as the students’ generosity and design project will have on the residents of Ngohe, Armstrong is convinced the trip had a much greater impact on the students themselves.

“For our project it has introduced a human element. It’s significantly more motivating to help someone you know,” he said. “As we complete the project we will ultimately be thinking of our friends in Ngohe, as we work hard to make their lives a little bit easier.”