What Drives Collaboration?

by - Friday, August 19, 2011

One team from APSC 263 (L-R)
Joon Hyuk (Martin) Jung, Umair Rana, Moses Chan, and Sungjin Kim.

This is a follow-up post to our New Challenges for 2011 post, where we outlined four artisan-related engineering problems given to students at the University of British Columbia (UBC). On April 5, 2011, students presented solutions in a poster session. We had outlined the problems on March 8th, thus giving students a little more than a month to design, research, and present their ideas.

This will be our third year working with the APSC 263. We are very fortunate this year as the two instructors (Annette Berndt, Carla Paterson) together with the Research Associate (Joanne Nakonechny) have prepared a detailed description of both the aims of the course and what happened in 2011. Here is a shortened version of that description. We found it very valuable to see the aims and goals of the course from the point of view of the instructors.

“Overall, [the project] was a great learning experience and an extremely valuable class that has changed my perspective on international development, and engineering, as well.”
 - APSC 263 student, 2011

Applied Science [APSC] 263, an innovative socio-technical engineering course, offers UBC students an opportunity to act globally while remaining in Vancouver as they offer solutions to problems defined by local artisans and villagers. After farming, the second largest employer in India is the craft sector which functions as an economic stabilizer for many villagers. The successful production of indigo dye or brass bells can mean the difference between two and three meals a day for those living close to, or on, the economic margins.

Charlotte Kwon provides the link between the students and the villagers. Kwon, a Vancouver-based social entrepreneur, is the founder of Maiwa Handprints Ltd., located on Granville Island, and the Maiwa Foundation, a non-profit organization concerned with poverty reduction. Kwon has established relationships with artisans and villagers in various parts of the world. She works with them on producing high-quality hand-crafted goods for both domestic and international markets. As Kwon works with the artisans, she is often made aware of problems they are experiencing such as procuring supplies or implementing a dyeing process. As much as possible she works directly with the artisans to resolve such issues. Sometimes, however, the problems are of a more complicated technical nature and feasibility of implementing new solutions. It is these types of problems that form the backbone of APSC 263.

In the 2011 term, APSC 263 students worked on four such problems. Two teams of students focused on the natural dye problems of the Khatri brothers, a family of blockprinters and dyers living in the Kutch desert in Gujarat in western India. The students investigated how to remove salt, which interferes with the adherence of the dye’s colour, and iron, which “saddens” or darkens the colours, from the bore well water used in the natural dyeing process.

Other teams considered how very poor farmers living in southern India might supplement their income by growing and processing indigo plants to produce cakes of natural indigo dye. The dye is a highly marketable product and the indigo plants can be used as an alternate nitrogen-fixing crop for soil enhancement. Another set of teams examined how leather workers from Jawaja, an impoverished and drought-prone region in Rajasthan, might be able to safely dispose of or eliminate the use of sodium sulphide, a toxic chemical used in leather tanning.

The last group of teams investigated how small textile producers in Rajasthan, might use solar energy to power industrial sewing machines. While sunlight is abundant in many parts of India, electricity is expensive. Moreover, depending on location, electricity users will experiences many daily power cuts. In addressing this particular socio-technical problem, one student team proposed three variant solutions based on the triple bottom line of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. While at times challenged by incomplete and conflicting information, students learned to develop a tolerance for ambiguity and appreciated the opportunity to work on meaningful real-world problems in a global context where simplicity is essential and funding limits all but the most creative ideas.

APSC 263 has been offered three times and from its inception, course instructors and developers, Annette Berndt and Carla Paterson, along with Joanne Nakonechny (Skylight), who secured the connection with Charlotte Kwon, realized that while presenting students with authentic global engineering problems was a valuable learning opportunity, the students’ proposed solutions needed to extend back to the artisans. To that end, Berndt, Paterson, and Nakonechny established a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to evaluate the students’ proposals and pursue the implementation of the best ideas. Currently serving on the TAC are four Professional Engineers: Claudio Arato, Director, Engineering and Technology, Sonoro Energy; Michael Blackman, Project Engineer, Read Jones Christofferson; John Holland, President, PHH ARC Environmental; and Vijay Kallur, Senior Project Manager, SNC Lavalin Environment.

The TAC is currently reviewing the 2011 student term reports, and is also in the midst of implementing an earlier term (2009/2010) problem solution relating to kiln efficiency for firing bells in Bhuj, Gujarat. The current kilns are inefficient and cause the bell-makers to divert scarce resources to purchasing or producing charcoal to fuel the kilns. Students addressed the problem by proposing redesigns of the kiln, as well as the use of alternate fuels (biomass briquettes and biogas generated from animal and human waste). TAC members reviewed the student kiln reports, extracting key ideas and in spring 2011 the UBC-India loop was closed when Charlotte Kwon travelled back to India and presented the student ideas to the bell-makers. The bell-makers were particularly interested in the solutions proposed by two student teams: Nicholas Adams, Keng-Pei Chiang, Anthony Siu, and Harshal Srivastava, Jaskaran Jit Singh, Tony Lei. The bell-makers proposed some modifications to the student designs, now being investigated by TAC members and the final designs for the more efficient kilns will be back to the villagers by late summer.

APSC 263 focuses on international learning and global service, UBC goals defined by President Toope (October 31, 2007) and on the nature of ill-structured, cost-effective problem solving (Chi, Feltovich and Glaser, 1981). These two foci provide APSC 263 engineering students with an opportunity to deepen their cultural understanding and strengthen their problem solving skills. Intercultural awareness and the ability to tackle ill-defined problems are attributes that will be required of engineering graduates in the 21st century global workplace (National Academy of Engineering 2004; Douglas & Papadopoulos 2010).

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  1. Fantastic. Yet another dimension of the open-hearted work Maiwa does.


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