Students Design a Better World


Solution: When Cynthia Koenig, MBA/MS '11 (pictured) visited South Africa on a William Davidson Institute fellowship from the University of Michigan, she was moved by the effects of the global water crisis. Koenig launched a nonprofit organization to help distribute a locally available water transportation tool. First, she worked on the design of what's called the WaterWheel, improving its durability and lowering the cost. The organization also came up with a business plan, to make sure that the product could actually reach the people it was intended to help. Koenig plans to return to India, where she ran trials last summer, after graduation to get the project up and running.

The Leveraged Freedom Chair: The Wheelchair for the Rural Developing World

Problem: 20 million to 40 million people who need wheelchairs in the developing world don't have them, and the wheelchairs currently on the market don't work well for people living in rural areas in developing countries.

Solution: Most people think of advanced science and technology when they hear mention of MIT. But Ph.D. candidate Amos Winter is making inroads across the globe with a far more simple idea: revolutionizing the wheelchair. The Leveraged Freedom Chair, or LFC, came about when Winter wanted to find a way to spend the summer in Tanzania with his girlfriend. His mentor, Amy Smith of MIT's D-Lab, suggested he look into wheelchairs. The LFC works through long, ratchet-like levers that change gears, allowing it to cross the tough terrains and unpaved roads that are common in the developing world. The chair, which can be built and fixed with common bicycle parts manufactured in hundreds of thousands of factories across the globe, has been tested in East Africa, Guatemala and India. Manufacture will start in India when testing trials finish, and Winter plans to use sales of the LFC in wealthy countries to donate chairs in the developing world.

Ancient Amazons Inspire Modern Day Solutions

Affordable Color and Money Identifier for the Blind

Problem: There are 37 million blind people in the world, and more than 124 million people who can't identify money.

Solution: Two master's degree students at the School of Engineering of the University of Sao Paulo, Fernando de Oliveira Gil and Nathalia Sautchuk PatrĂ­cio, developed Auire, a low-cost, portable color and money bill identifier. The two students had worked in poor communities in the Brazilian states of Sao Paulo, Tocantins and Mato Grosso do Sul in partnership with students from MIT. The device reads the color of an object or the value of a money bill, and speaks the name out loud. Their mission is to get this out to the blind people of the world, for a fraction of the cost of what similar devices sell for.

Increasing Crop Yields to Fight Soil Depletion

Problem: Around the world, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year, reports a new Cornell University study. Soil depletion can lead to poor agricultural yields and malnutrition.

Solution: While studying at Princeton University, Jason Amburu visited the Amazon and saw an ancient technique called pyrolisis, which offers a way to fight soil depletion in the developing world. His company, re:char, is bringing this ancient Amazonian farming method to the masses, helping subsistence farmers in the developing world to enhance their crop yields and supplement their income while trapping atmospheric carbon and enriching depleted soils. They do this through the use of a product called biochar. Biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen, converting it into solid carbon and pyrolysis gas, which can then be used as a cleaner-burning fuel source.

The "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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