Amy Smith: Service Engineering
Amy B. Smith is an inventor who creates useful technologies for others. Yet before she could do that, she had to invent something else: a way to channel her skills into a path that was meaningful to her. "When I was working towards my bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering here in the 1980s, the chief focus in the field seemed to be cars and bombs," she says. "I don't drive and I don't like war, so I had to find my own way."
Raised with the value of serving others, and partly inspired by a year she spent in India as a child, Amy decided to join the Peace Corps. It was while working in Botswana that she saw first hand that populations most in need of innovative technological solutions often lack the skills and resources to create them. Upon returning to MIT in the 1990s, she requested and received funding to travel to Africa to identify engineering projects. Her master's thesis was a mechanized, low-cost grain mill that not only worked better than previous methods, but also used less energy and cost less than a quarter of the price of existing mills.
Some of her other inventions include a laboratory incubator that doesn't require electricity and a low-cost chlorination system for community water supplies. It's not surprising that she is the co-founder of the MIT IDEAS Competition, which encourages teams to develop and implement projects that make a positive change in the world. Her ingenuity and commitment to serving the needs of the less fortunate have been well-recognized: in 2000, Amy became the first female winner of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention and in 2004, her work earned her a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (the "genius grant").
The ABC's of D-Lab
Currently, Amy teaches D-Lab, a series of courses and field experiences that gives students a grounding in the technical challenges that developing countries face - then gives them the opportunity to travel, find a need, conceive a solution, and then prototype and implement it. Target nations include Brazil, China, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Lesotho, and Zambia. Students travel during the January Independent Activities Period (IAP).
"We partner with diverse organizations, including universities, technology centers, foundations, and businesses," Amy says. "For example, one corporation sponsors our work in Brazil because it has operations there. In Zambia, we partner with the local chieftainess and the whole village gets involved."
Designing technologies for developing countries is particularly challenging because of the numerous constraints. A reliable electrical system, for example, is not a given. In addition, cost, durability, and ease of use are important. Students learn and apply fabrication and prototyping skills to help them assess the viability of their concepts.
Fuel from the fields
One D-Lab initiative is the Fuel From the Fields Charcoal Project developed for Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. In many areas of Haiti, the primary cooking fuel is wood charcoal. At 70 Haitian dollars a bag, it is beyond the reach of many families. In addition, the fumes from indoor wood fires kill many children each year in developing countries. Also, Haiti is 98% deforested - so when the wood is gone, the people will face an uncertain future.
The charcoal project created a process for producing charcoal that uses bagasse - the fibers from sugar cane stalks that remain after the juice has been extracted - instead of wood. The goal was to create an alternative charcoal briquette with the same density as one made with wood, that burns more cleanly, and is less costly and environmentally damaging to produce. Pilot testing in Petite Anse, a small fishing village in northern Haiti, showed promising results using locally available skills and materials. Further research in El Salvador has refined the technique, and large-scale implementation is due to start in summer 2006.
According to Amy, "The Charcoal Project is a good model of what we want to accomplish in D-Lab: solutions that are simple, cheap, and easy to produce and distribute; that deliver health, environmental, and economic benefits; and that serve an urgent need." In many ways, Amy is able to provide her students with the undergraduate experience she was looking for at MIT more than 20 years ago. In making her work relevant to her life, Amy is having an impact on many other lives around the world.