Engineering students “travel” the world to embrace ambiguity

If you think a trek from the Bus Loop to class is arduous, try traveling halfway around the world. That’s what students in the Applied Science 263: Technology and Development course do every week—metaphorically speaking, that is.

Dubbed “The Global Engineer,” the course invites students to propose solutions to complex real-life problems identified by artisans in India.

For example, the Khatri brothers, a family of natural dyers in the Kutch desert in western India, require large quantities of water for the dyeing process. However, the only source of water is from a borewell, so it is full of impurities. Minerals like salt interfere with how the dye’s colour adheres to cloth, while iron “saddens” or darkens the dye’s colour.  Students devised an ingenious and workable solution of using tiers of buckets filled with sand and charcoal to filter and purify the water.

These challenges sparked Calvin Lee’s interest. During the course last term, Lee and his teammates delved into ways for harnessing solar energy to power industrial sewing machines for a small company in Bagru, Rajasthan—where electricity is very expensive and intermittent. Lee credits the course for honing his professional and life skills.

“I used to think that engineering was just about technicalities, accuracy and calculations,” says Lee, who graduated from UBC this spring and is currently working as an electrical engineer. “But this course radically changed my views on that. I understand now just how significantly the social, economic and cultural aspects of an engineering problem can affect the outcomes, not to mention the importance of respecting the community’s desires.”

“We’re not giving them neat text-book problems with pre-determined solutions,” says Carla Paterson who teaches the course with fellow instructor Annette Berndt.

Berndt and Paterson, along with UBC learning and teaching researcher Joanne Nakonechny, focused on shaping a course that would deepen students’ social and cultural understanding, while also enhancing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“We’re asking students to develop a tolerance for ambiguity,” says Berndt.

To identify real-world problems, the instructors work with Charllotte Kwon, a social entrepreneur and founder of the Vancouver-based Maiwa Foundation and Maiwa Handprints Ltd. Kwon  paints a picture of the societal and environmental “big picture” for the students and also presents the solutions to the artisans in her travels back to India.

“I’m always very excited to see the students’ presentations,” says Kwon. “Despite working with budget or time constraints, their optimism allows them to come up with very creative and technically sound solutions.”

Follow Charllotte Kwon’s blog at?


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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 9 | Sep. 1, 2011

A woman stands in a field of indigo plants (Left). A vat of indigo dye ready for aeration (right).Charllotte Kwon Photographs

A woman stands in a field of indigo plants (Left). A vat of indigo dye ready for aeration (right).Charllotte Kwon Photographs

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APSC 263

Bike Powered Aerator

APSC 263 students have also proposed small-scale solutions to process indigo leaves into a natural dye that can be sold by impoverished farmers in western India. The indigo plant has the added benefit of fixing nitrogen in the soil, making it a useful rotation crop.

One team came up a bike-powered method to speed the aeration of indigo, which helps to solidify the dye into small briquettes. Currently, indigo producers use paddles to manually oxidize the indigo in each vat.

Bike Powered Aerator

Schematic of bike-powered aerator by Ritwik Chowdhury, Diego Ribas-Cadle, Yuan Sunarto and Adrian Tong

APSC 263

Multidisciplinary Learning

  • Open to students from engineering and the Faculty of Arts.
  • Students from English lit, First Nations studies, international relations, political science, and environmental sciences have taken the course.
  • Students work in multidisciplinary teams and propose solutions, which are judged by an advisory committee that includes professional engineers and ultimately presented to the artisans.

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