Penn State humanitarian engineering program wins award for global impact

East Africa’s harsh climate and short growing season leave many small farmers in Kenya without a stable source of food or income for much of the year. Traditional greenhouses are unaffordable for most Kenyans. In an effort to help, Penn State students spent years developing and testing low-cost greenhouses and creating a self-sustaining business model for local farmers.

“We helped them establish the entire value chain — how at every step of the way, every set of people involved can directly gain from these greenhouses,” said Khanjan Mehta, director of the Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program in Penn State’s College of Engineering. “You might have the best technology, the best business strategy — but it’s about making it happen. The execution is the challenge.”

For its work, HESE has been recognized by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) as the Northeast regional winner of the 2013 Outreach Scholarship W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award and is now a national finalist for the C. Peter Magrath University Community Engagement Award.

“The HESE program is a great example of the important work being done by Penn State faculty, students and staff to apply scholarly research to address critical societal issues,” said Craig Weidemann, vice president for Penn State Outreach and co-chair of the university Council on Engaged Scholarship. “HESE transforms technology-based solutions into innovative and scalable ventures that enable and accelerate positive social change.”

HESE has now licensed its greenhouse technology to a for-profit company in Nairobi that mass manufactures greenhouse kits for the local marketplace. HESE is pursuing similar partnerships in Rwanda, Cameroon, Madagascar and Haiti.

“We design for markets,” Mehta said. “Our goal is to develop solutions that are sustainable and scalable. It’s not about donating something to somebody and solving a problem for them.”

Other HESE ventures include development of affordable solar food dryers, ceramic water filters and a telemedicine system, Mashavu Networked Health Solutions, that provides health services in central Kenya. Students are researching a sensor to determine whether Kenyan moonshine, called chang'aa, has been contaminated with potentially lethal quantities of methanol.

The HESE program, which existed as a club for almost a decade before being formalized as a Penn State program two years ago, involves hundreds of students from across the university — about half of them engineering students. Students are required to work on original publishable research projects and 60 to 70 students go overseas each year to take part in multi-year projects.

Each year, Penn State’s Council on Engaged Scholarship reviews outstanding University engaged scholarship and outreach programs and awards the Penn State Award for Community Engagement and Scholarship. In 2013, that honor went to the HESE program. The Community Engagement and Scholarship winner then becomes the University’s nominee for the APLU Outreach Scholarship award.

The Outreach Scholarship Award recipients come from four regions — Northeast, North Central, South and West. Each regional winner will receive a cash prize of $5,000 and compete for the C. Peter Magrath University Community Engagement Award.

The winner will be announced during the 126th APLU Annual Meeting Nov. 10-12 in Washington, D.C.

In 2008, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences won the national award for Rethinking Urban Poverty: the Philadelphia Field Project. In 2009, the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine won a regional award for the Northern Appalachia Cancer Network: Changing Cancer Research, Changing People’s Lives. In 2011, the College of Arts and Architecture won a regional award for The Pittsburgh Studio: Regenerative Design in Stressed Communities.

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Last Updated June 06, 2013