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Learning Off the Grid: Implementing Engineering Service Projects in Developing Countries to Achieve Student, Faculty, and Community Outcomes

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2016 ASEE International Forum


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 25, 2016

Start Date

June 25, 2016

End Date

June 25, 2016

Conference Session

Concurrent Paper Tracks Session II Outreach

Tagged Topic

International Forum

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Paper Authors


Paul John Ackerman Jr P.E. Virginia Military Institute

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Paul J, Ackerman, Jr., PhD, PE

Paul Ackerman is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Paul is also the Assistant Program Director and Faculty Advisor for Keydets Without Borders, VMI’s international service program.

Paul has over 20 years of project management and construction engineering experience on a variety of local, state, and federal projects. In addition Paul has assisted with engineering service projects in Uganda and Bolivia.

Paul received a BSCE from Virginia Military Institute in 1993, an MSCE from West Virginia University in 1995, and a PhD in Civil Engineering from Virginia Tech in 2014.

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Tim Moore P.E. Virginia Military Institute

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A 1997 graduate of VMI, I earned my PhD in Environmental Engineering from Virginia Tech in 2009. I believe that research and new technologies greatly enhance the overall learning experience, and that environmental engineers have a social responsibility. Therefore, I have established new research and initiatives to advance instruction at VMI through the development of VMI Keydets Without Borders (VMI-KWB), a research and study abroad program that provides design and construction of sustainable water and sanitation facilities in developing communities. This program has been instrumental in teaching the concepts of austere, rudimentary development and operation of water and wastewater treatment systems coupled with sustainable energy concepts (solar, biomass). To date, our group has designed solar and gravity powered pumping facilities for sustainable “portable farm” aquaculture projects in Uganda and Bolivia, solar thermal energy showers using recycled construction materials in Bolivia, anaerobic waste treatment and energy generation facilities and solar devices for the capture and conveyance of potable water sources within resource poor communities of Haiti, Bolivia and Uganda. This program has also focused on the pyrolitic development of manure-based biochars for the purposes of drinking water filtration. Specifically, I am focusing on the development of llama and alpaca manure biochars for the filtration of mine waste contaminated water sources in the Andes region of Bolivia. Biochars are created in the field using top-lit updraft stoves capable of low oxygen, zero emissions conversion of manures to biochar. These biochars are created during normal cooking activities; the biochar is then collected from the stove and used for filtration of drinking water. This project has proven to provide a very innovative and sustainable means of clean water filtration, thus improving overall health conditions within communities and greatly enhancing experiential learning in the field. Preliminary research suggests that our designs have reduced community infant mortality rates by more than 40%, saving the lives of more than 4,000 children worldwide. This clearly emphasizes engineering service and the need for sustainable infrastructure projects that produce positive results without negatively impacting future generations.

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Tyler Adam Brickles

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Tyler is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute where he obtained his Bachelor's degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering. While at VMI Tyler conducted research on the implementation of off grid sanitation systems. Tyler was apart of a team that successfully designed and implemented a waterless eco-latrine network that was combined with a powerless solar shower for a remote village in the Andes Mountain region of Bolivia. He also successfully designed a manure based (MB) bio-char stove that would allow for multi-fuction use as a stove, indoor heating system and the creation of MB bio-char that is used for water filtration.

Currently Tyler is attending Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA and is conducting research on the intracellular processes of anaerobic digestion with Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

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The implementation of student service projects into higher education curricula may no longer be considered a novel engineering educational initiative since a significant number of institutions have developed and embraced this concept over the past several years. However, the introduction of civic engagement and service learning through the implementation of engineering service projects is still a novel concept for the majority of students who participate in such programs. The concept of young adults who are willing to imbed themselves in a community and environment that may appear foreign to them and volunteer time and funds to work and learn is also a novel concept for communities where these projects are implemented.

The purpose of this paper is to share the development of a student service program at a small undergraduate school. The paper will discuss challenging topics to consider when implementing engineering service projects in developing countries such as safety, cost, logistics, logistics, and logistics. The paper will also discuss multiple outcomes that are the result of engineering service projects such as introducing service work in higher education curricula, learning engineering fundamentals, learning and experiencing different civilizations and cultures, developing student leadership, and creating successful partnerships with academia, communities, and non-government organizations. The school has also created a service committee that is currently studying the feasibility of institutionalizing civic engagement and service at the school. A significant challenge for the committee is the task to develop a universal assessment model that can quantify the student learning outcomes of multiple faculty and department service initiatives. Currently, learning outcomes are assessed qualitatively through reading journals, blogs, and reflective essays that students are required to submit. Measuring the outcomes for creating successful partnerships with academia, communities, and non-government organizations is simply a quantitative measurement based on the number of project proposals and partnerships seriously evaluated compared to the number of proposals that resulted in a successfully completed project by the program.

The overall objective of this paper is to share the experiences of developing a student service program in the hope that such information will assist schools interested in developing similar student service programs. In addition, this paper will also discuss the lessons learned from past service projects in the hope that other schools, with well-established student service programs, will discuss their programs and share their best practices with the authors and conference attendees.

Ackerman, P. J., & Moore, T., & Brickles, T. A. (2016, June), Learning Off the Grid: Implementing Engineering Service Projects in Developing Countries to Achieve Student, Faculty, and Community Outcomes Paper presented at 2016 ASEE International Forum, New Orleans, Louisiana.

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