Thursday, November 13, 2008

Amy Smith: Simple Solutions to Big Problems

MIT engineering instructor Amy Smith eschews high tech gadgets and glossy technology for practical solutions to the problems of some of the poorest people in the world. An article about Smith in Popular Mechanics focused on her recent work in Peru, developing a method of turning old corncobs into charcoal:

[...] Smith is a rising star in a field known as appropriate technology, which focuses on practical, usually small-scale designs to solve problems in the developing world. She has brought four undergrads to Compone, along with Jesse Austin-Breneman, an MIT graduate who works for a community organization in Peru, and one of her engineering collaborators, 53-year-old Gwyndaf Jones. To get here, the team has lugged bags of tools and low-tech gadgets, water-testing equipment and a heavy wooden crate bearing a pedal-powered grain mill more than 3500 miles in taxis, airplanes and buses.

The charcoal project is the responsibility of Mary Hong, a 19-year-old branching out beyond her aerospace major this semester. She and the other students, coincidentally all women, are enrolled in Smith's D-Lab, a course that is becoming quietly famous beyond the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. The D is for development, design and dissemination; last fall, more than 100 students applied for about 30 slots. To prepare for their field work, D-Lab students live for a week in Cambridge on $2 per day. (Smith joins in.) Right now, eight more D-Lab teams are plying jungle rivers, hiking goat trails and hailing chicken buses in seven additional countries—Brazil, Honduras, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, India and China. In Smith's view, even harsh aspects of Third World travel have their benefits. "If you get a good bout of diarrhea from a waterborne disease," she says, "you really understand what it means to have access to clean drinking water."
I imagine it's quite a shock for students to go from relatively cushy student life in Cambridge to countries where rough conditions are the norm and access to clean drinking water isn't guaranteed (it certainly would be fore me). I think it would also be quite challenging to try to come up with engineering solutions when resources are extremely limited - a far cry from the well-equipped labs at MIT. But it must be immensely satisfying to work on projects that directly improve people's quality of life, even if it does mean the occasional case of the runs.

Smith has received a number of honors for her work: she was the first woman to win the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2000, and was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004.

In 2006 she gave a TED talk about turning farm waste into fuel:

Smith also organizes the annual International Development Design Summit, which brings together professors, students, craftsmen, members of industry and others interested developing innovative prototypes to help the developing world. See her 7 Rules of Low-Cost Design for more about her approach to engineering.

(via Metafilter)

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