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Tackling real-world African water problem at SMU engineering camp

Twenty girls designed and built an automatic system to chlorinate and pump water


The following first appeared in the June 15, 2012, edition of Neighbors.

June 19, 2012

DALLAS (SMU) – Twenty high school girls built a solution to a daunting refugee water delivery problem during a special summer camp at SMU this month, learning the real meaning of teamwork and getting a taste of humanitarian engineering.

The 11th-grade girls selected from applicants across Texas to participate in the SMU Lyle School’s Engineering Innovation Camp designed and built an automatic system to chlorinate and pump water, using the steep incline of a campus amphitheater to simulate the depth of a borehole well.  Over three days, the girls built a network of large tanks, pumps, and PVC pipe, guided by a computer program to carry clean water up to the top steps of the amphitheater.

The group was all smiles on the last day of camp as clean water came gushing out of the last few inches of pipe, just as it was designed to do. To hear them tell it, the countless mistakes and start-overs may have been the best part of the experience.

“Seventy-five percent of programming is de-bugging – that’s what we’ve learned!” said 16-year-old Elizabeth Haynes, a junior at Plano Senior High School who worked on the computer programming team.

“It really is trial and error,” added team member Reena Bhikha, a 15-year-old junior at Highland Park High School.  “As the day progresses it becomes more frustrating and then it becomes comical.”

“And then you get it – and it’s amazing!” said Dona Uthirakulathu, a 15-year-old junior from Dulles High School in Sugarland, a suburb of Houston.

Angela Zhang, 16, who will be a junior at Plano Senior High School, said she heard about the SMU camp from her chemistry teacher.  She knew from the camp’s Facebook page that their project would involve water tanks, “but I really didn’t know what to expect.” Angela took on the task of water chlorination, which would require a small, low-flow pump.  The $400 solution she found online seemed “too much” on every level.

GTirls at the SMU Lyle School’s Engineering Innovation Camp“Then I started thinking about a fish tank pump,” she said, explaining that a trip to Petco ultimately provided the affordable solution.  Angela grinned as she explained that her solution to connecting small plastic tubing to the fish tank pump ultimately involved a generous wrapping of duct tape.

Inspiration for the camp project came from a poorly operating water system observed by SMU Lyle faculty members taking water samples at a U.N. refugee camp in Djibouti, an African nation bordering Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.  The camp opened with photos and  video demonstrating life in a refugee camp and a discussion of how difficult it is to live without reliable access to clean water.

“We showed the girls their water delivery system and the impact on quality of life in the refugee camps,” said Nathan Huntoon, director of the Lyle School’s Innovation Gym and faculty leader for the camp. “By applying a basic engineering viewpoint to their water problems, we showed how much better we can make life for the people in those camps.”

The camp, also offered to two groups of 11th-grade boys this summer, is free to a select group of students interested in pursuing educational opportunities and careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields thanks to a grant from the Texas Workforce Commission.  During the camp, students spent several nights in campus residence halls, were mentored by representatives from the SMU faculty and participated in panel and group discussions with industry partners.

SMU graduate student Haddijatou Bayo, who worked as a camp mentor, said the “girls-only” engineering experience was a confidence-builder:  “A lot of girls think engineering is a man’s field.  They know they can do it if they want to – it’s an option now.”

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