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Feature: Teaming With Ideas

con-fea-02-image01College student contestants in the UNESCO-Daimler Mondialogo competition strive to design functional, environmentally friendly solutions to pressing problems in some of the world’s poorest regions. The contest pairs teams of college students from prosperous nations, such as the United States, with  students from the developing world. They work on projects — from better sewage disposal in an urban slum to bringing modern diagnostic techniques to rural clinics — keyed to the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals. — from a April 2009 feature in Prism magazine, by Mark Matthews

TEAMING WITH IDEAS

Engineering students go global, designing solutions while competing for cash.

Dorisel Torres almost left engineering behind when she began graduate studies in soil science at Cornell and plunged into research on biochar. This high-carbon, low-ash black dust, the result of incinerating plant waste, has the potential to boost crop yield in poor countries where farmers can’t afford fertilizer. It also traps carbon dioxide, helping to curb climate change. And because it can be made from all manner of organic material, it spares forests. But when Torres asked, “How do you expect farmers to get biochar?” no one had an answer. So she set out to find one, resurrecting skills acquired as a chemical engineering major at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

That simple but crucial question “how?” captures what drives Torres and other contestants in the biennial Mondialogo Engineering Award competition. From looking for ways to stop sewage floods in an urban slum to bringing modern diagnostic techniques to rural clinics, these young competitors strive to design functional, environmentally friendly solutions to pressing problems in some of the world’s poorest regions.

Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the German automaker Daimler, the contest aims to nurture cross-cultural collaboration. It requires student teams from developed countries, like the United States, Britain, Germany, and Singapore, to join with teams from developing countries, mostly in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Part Facebook, part distance-learning challenge, and part cultural leveler, Mondialogo also serves as an international virtual meeting ground for the technologically inclined.

The first two competitions in 2005 and 2007 inspired such inventions as a modular design for a simple but sturdy bridge to help rural Rwandans cross fast-moving highland rivers; a scheme to control toxic leachate at a 50-acre dump in Manila; a robotic aerial vehicle to scout land mines in war-torn southern Lebanon; and polypropylene wall inserts to earthquake-proof existing homes in Nepal.

Read more in the April, 2009 Prism.

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