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A Genius for Change, and the Passion to Do It

10/10/2007 6:00 PM Museum
Amy Smith, '84, SM '95, ENG '95, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Jules Walter, '08, MIT '08 (Computer Science); Kendra Johnson, MIT '09; Amos Winter, SM '05, M.S. Mech Engineering, '05

Description: If you live in a developing country, chances are you spend a good part of your day engaged in backbreaking, repetitive labor to put food on the table. The MIT students in this Soap Box session have rolled up their sleeves to find simple solutions for the half of the world without access to safe drinking water, electricity, and all the conveniences we take for granted.

At Amy Smith's MIT D-Lab (for design, development, dissemination), the goal is inventing -the simplest, cheapest thing you possibly can" for the citizens of impoverished nations. For instance, she tells us, D-Lab has come up with an electricity-free incubator that allows people to test their water for nasty microbes, and a turbine-less wind generator, among other inventions. Her students elaborate on some of their current projects, which hold the potential to help millions.

Jules Walter had the idea of putting his native Haiti's millions of pounds of sugar cane waste to good use. They developed a low cost process to transform cane discards into charcoal, which is then carbonized, mixed with a binder (locally available cassava), and pressed. This system creates an inexpensive cane briquet for indoor cooking that offers a much preferable alternative to chopping down a tree (Haiti is already 90% deforested). In addition, it should help lower that country's high rate of respiratory infections due to wood charcoal inhalation. Walter hopes to market this invention for large-scale distribution in Haiti.

Kendra Johnson has come up with a bicycle-powered grain mill that can make masa, wet corn ground into fine dough for tortillas. This is a dietary staple for many Central and South American people. Normally, a woman would spend hours with a hand mortar or pestle, or visit a diesel-powered mill to buy masa for the nightly meal. Now, the bike design makes it possible to achieve the end result in a fraction of the time.

Graduate student Amos Winter wants to bring mobility technology to developing countries, where it can be difficult to find a clear sidewalk or smooth road surface. Western wheelchairs are much too expensive, and quickly break down in third-world conditions. Consequently in places like Tanzania, where Winter has worked, only 4% of those who need a wheelchair have one. He has been designing a hand-powered tricycle with two gears, which can stay upright on rutted roads and go uphill. Working with local groups, he has developed workshops in nine countries to start developing and marketing prototypes.

About the Speaker(s): The first female Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner, Amy Smith received a B.S. (1984) and an S.M. (1995) in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and is currently working toward a M.S. in Technology and Policy. She also won the National Inventor's Hall of Fame Collegiate Inventors Competition (1999). In 2001 Smith helped start the MIT IDEAS Competition to promote student innovation and inventiveness for community needs, which she currently directs.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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