Engineering capstone students team with business students to help women in Uganda

Engineering capstone students team with business students to help women in Uganda

Calendar Icon Mar 18, 2016      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

J.K. Osiri, director of UNL's international business program and associate professor of practice in management, meets with engineering and business students to discuss the team's project to help the Kinawataka Women Initiatives in Kampala, Uganda.
J.K. Osiri, director of UNL's international business program and associate professor of practice in management, meets with engineering and business students to discuss the team's project to help the Kinawataka Women Initiatives in Kampala, Uganda.
When engineering students sign up for their senior design capstone courses, they reasonably expect to be getting experience that can replicate real-world engineering projects.

A team of UNL engineering and business students, however, are learning plenty about how professional teams of diverse expertise come together to complete projects. The students are also going thousands of extra miles – to Africa during spring break -- to get actual experience by helping hundreds of economically challenged women in Uganda have a chance at better lives.

“Honestly, what’s great about this project is that it’s a real-life application of your engineering education,” said Maggie Clay, engineering team leader and a senior mechanical and materials engineering major. “You don’t always see that your freshman, sophomore, junior years of college. You’re doing a lot of math and a lot of homework and you don’t see how that’s applied.
“That’s a lot of what appealed to me about this project. I knew I’d be doing something that is very applicable and that would help build skills for the rest of my career and we’d get to do something that can make a difference for people who really need it.”

J.K. Osiri, director of UNL’s international business program, asked students in Carl Nelson’s mechanical and materials engineering Senior Design I course to consider joining his team of business students. They would be working on a project with Benedicta Nanyonga and the Kinawataka Women Initiative, which helps “marginalized” women in Uganda.

Clay said the decision for some of the engineers was almost immediate.

“Dr. Osiri came in and said there were some engineers working on the machine right now, but we need some engineers to take over the project and who are willing to travel abroad,” Clay said. “A couple of us were sitting there and just said, ‘Yes. This is for us. Let’s go.’

Seven engineering students volunteered for the team – seniors Clay, Zachary Boyer, Dana Fuchs, Zachary Gardner, Collin Humphrey and Melissa Kesterson and junior Scott Schenkelberg. Because Kesterson would not be able to accompany the team to Uganda, freshman biological systems engineering major Josiah Johnson was added later.

This spring, the engineering students are taking Senior Design II course taught by Bill Dick, lecturer in mechanical and materials engineering.

More than 700 women work part time at the nonprofit organization, flattening used drinking straws into material that can be weaved into bags, jewelry and other accessories. But their current method of running the straws along the edges of knives is both inefficient – yielding one flattened straw per person per minute – and dangerous, Osiri said.

“I saw the opportunity for us to create a multidisciplinary project where engineering students can build the machine to flatten the straws, because right now the way the women are doing is very inefficient,” Osiri said. “I thought the engineering students could automate the process and build a machine that could do the flattening and the business students could develop a business plan and project the future of the business outlook based on the machine we were going to build.”

Last year, a team of engineering students began designing a machine that would flatten hundreds of straws per minute. But it would cost about $8,000 to build another of those machines, a figure that Osiri said would be too expensive for KWI.

So, this year, the engineering students have two tasks –finish building the original machine, and designing and building another that would be more cost-effective. The newer design, Clay said, is simpler and would have parts that would be easier to replace but it would not flatten straws nearly as quickly and efficiently.

KWI will receive both machines and a team of engineering students from Kyambogo University in Uganda will be given manuals and training so that they can create and install replacement parts or build copies of the machines.

“One of the biggest research aspects we had is the technical standards we have to meet in Uganda,” Clay said. “On top of that, we just recently found out that plastic is really expensive for them, so if we design a machine that doesn’t use plastic, that’s better. It sounds like a little thing, but it really is something we’ve found out is huge.”

Learning other lessons has been valuable for the entire team.

Seven engineering students and six business students are taking Osiri’s class – International Consulting for a Social Enterprise – and are learning about each other’s worlds. Business students are required to attend a certain number of engineering team meetings to learn more about that side of the project and business students and engineers are paired to take exams together.

The benefit to the students is not only measurable in the successes of the machines or business plans.

“They must study together and learn to communicate if they want to succeed,” Osiri said. “That’s how it is in the real world. Here, engineers are learning business skills and how business professionals think. Business students learn the engineering process and how engineers think. They are learning valuable lessons that will help them all succeed after they graduate.”

The interaction hasn’t always been easy. There have been instances where expectations and thought processes have clashed, Osiri said, but the students have learned how to overcome the conflicts.

Clay said the struggles still happen, but they are valuable for the engineers.

“We’re all learning. I’m not going to say we’re doing awesome at it and we don’t get frustrated at times. (But) it’s forcing the team to get out of their shells a bit,” Clay said. “You may not want to be a business professional, but it’s important to know how to communicate with a business professional. We like being technical with our engineering language, but we have to understand that a lot of other people who are important to our projects don’t have that background.”

This experience, Clay said, will give her fellow engineering team members a professional advantage.

“Some of us have jobs lined up (after graduation) and others of us don’t, but this is something that we can talk about with prospective employers. We can tell them that we’ve worked with business students and business professionals and learned to communicate with them,” Clay said. “That puts you on a whole different level than someone who all they’ve ever done is work with engineers and technicians. It kind of checks off all the boxes.”

This weekend, while their fellow students are leaving for spring break vacations, a team of 15 from UNL – two faculty and 13 students – will venture to Uganda with no regrets.

“In every college and every major, there are the kids who want to go somewhere and party and goof off. But we're going to have such an amazing experience,” Clay said. “We're going to be helping people make more out of their lives. I don't think any of us would take the beach over that."