Engineering leadership students keep making a difference in Morocco

The sound is like hundreds of ping-pong balls bouncing off a floor.

It’s the cracking of the argan nut – the incredibly hard pit of a fruit whose innards fetch a high price on European and North American markets after it’s converted into  culinary oil or cosmetics.

A group of women sit on the floor, each with a large rock between their legs, smacking the thumb-sized argan nut with a smaller stone to get at the core.

Richard Schuhmann, the Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development, was introduced to this women’s cooperative in Tiout, Morocco, four years ago by a colleague.

“I was invited here by Prof. Zoubida Charrouf. She’s a chemistry professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, which is the capital of Morocco,” Schuhmann explained. “Prof. Charrouf wanted me to come here and meet the women of the argan cooperative, to see if there was some way we can partner with these women.”

And with that began an unlikely pairing between Penn State students and a group of women in a remote Moroccan village.  Each year, Schuhmann and his students head to the North African country to work with the cooperative.

“These are strong women, very confident, who had established an agricultural cooperative to empower themselves,” Schuhmann said.

The women spend their entire day extracting the meat from argan nuts. It’s a difficult job – imagine a full-time gig smashing the claws of blue crabs to collect the tiny shreds of flesh – but it’s one of the only ways the women can earn money.

Luckily for them, Morocco has a de facto monopoly on argan.

“The argan trees don’t grow prolifically anywhere else in the world except for Morocco. And they don’t grow anywhere else in Morocco except for here,” Schuhmann said.

The method for cracking the argan nut has remained unchanged for generations. Using two stones, one large that serves as the anvil and one small that serves as the striker, women smack the outer shell to reveal the almond slice-like meat from the nut.

The labor creates some obvious hazards for the women. Crushed fingers, repetitive stress and poor ergonomics are just a few of the things they must contend with.

Over the past four years, Schuhmann’s students have learned about this community and engineered ways to make the women’s lives better. “We identified some needs that are non-life threatening.”

Schuhmann has integrated the design-and-build work across his curriculum, from an introductory engineering leadership experience course to a more advanced virtual teaming class where his students collaborate with Hungarian business students from Corvinus University in Budapest supporting enterprises in the developing world.

One of the students’ first projects was the development of finger protectors for the women, who had been complaining about the injuries they suffered while cracking nuts.

Schuhmann said the protectors were such a hit that many of the women began fashioning their own based on the original Penn State designs.

Not every project is an unqualified success, however. Replacement anvils and strikers designed by the undergraduates met with a cool reception, as was a chair and table prototype meant to alleviate the lower-back strain the women were experiencing.

Learning from the feedback provided by the co-op, Schuhmann’s students redesigned the chairs this spring. The  environmental engineer said the women complained that the chair reclined too steeply and the table was too unstable to stand in for the anvil rock.

The students’ new design, which Schuhmann recently delivered to the cooperative, is a low, beach-style chair that includes three angles for reclining.

This time around, the chairs are a hit with the women. As quickly as the chairs are brought in to the cooperative, the women ditch the floor pillows that provided their only comfort from the unyielding floor.

One woman offers Schuhmann a suggestion – add storage space behind the chair for personal items. Another shoves her old back pillow behind her new chair to provide even greater lower-back support.

What Schuhmann really hopes is that the women take the chair design and make it their own, replicating and perhaps improving on the original, just like with the finger protectors.

He explained that the students purposely designed the chairs to be assembled without the aid of metal nails, screws or hinges. The kit consists of straight wood pieces, dowels, denim fabric for the seat and even an Ikea-like set of instructions.

A total of 20 chairs were built by the Penn State engineering students for the women. Schuhmann and civil engineering senior Lydia Karlheim assembled 19 of them for the cooperative – intentionally leaving the 20th unassembled as a template for future, village-produced chairs.

“They’re not horrific social needs, but they’re ways in which our students at University Park have been making these women’s lives easier,” he said. “One of the most important challenges our students face when designing for developing-world communities is to not only satisfy the need, but to make sure that solution is appropriate.”

Schuhmann continued, “A typical engineering approach might be: ‘Women are using rocks to open nuts. They sustain injuries. Let’s design a machine that would remove the women’s fingers from the process.’ On paper, that would be a great solution. The problem is, we’ve got a cooperative here of 50 women, most of them are widows or divorced, so the only way they can earn money is by breaking nuts eight hours a day in this cooperative. If our students designed a fantastically efficient machine, came up with a terrific engineering solution, they could destroy this entire cooperative. So they could have come into this village with very good intentions, provided technology from the developed world and done real damage. So I think our students learn very good lessons when they engage in this type of design. And these women are delighted to no end that there are young people in a place called America that think about them and send them these innovations each year.”

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Last Updated September 17, 2010