Students solve real-world problems through social entrepreneurship

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Yixin Sun’s life changed when she began working with Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program last year.

The program opened her eyes to what social entrepreneurship could accomplish, the sophomore from Beijing said. It also helped put her daily life into perspective.

“HESE showed me the big picture,” said Sun, who spent a month in Kenya last spring working on a prototype rainwater collection system. The industrial engineering major now hopes to become a social entrepreneur after graduating. “I like the idea that it’s a kind of entrepreneurship but has social impact as well,” she said.

The HESE program is run by Penn State’s College of Engineering, but involves students from colleges and campuses across the University. HESE projects include development of low-cost greenhouses, a telemedicine system, rainwater harvesting and development of solar food dryers, among others.

Yixin Sun and Faye Poon working on a HESE project

Penn State students Yixin Sun, right, and Faye Poon working on a rainwater collection project in Kenya for Penn State's Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program.

Image: Jillian Zankowski

HESE’s entrepreneurial focus sets it apart from other service learning programs, said director Khanjan Mehta. “We design for markets,” he 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.”

HESE students work with community partners to identify challenges and develop solutions. However, Mehta said, “our focus is really not on a particular community. We are always looking for larger, scalable solutions.”

Everleigh Stokes, a junior from Charlottesville, Va., also traveled with HESE last spring to Kenya, where she was part of a team interviewing women about their work and priorities.

“It’s not your typical ‘Let’s go work in an orphanage for a week,’ ” she said. “You have to do a lot of research up front and then deal with problems in the field. You had to take the initiative to make progress happen. It really stretches you as a student.”

Stokes, who is majoring in geography, said the work helped solidify her plans for a career in global health. “It’s incredible to see how decisions you make as an undergrad at Penn State affect the lives of people across the world,” she said.  “You’re really having an influence on people’s lives.”

The HESE program existed as a faculty-mentored student club for almost a decade before being formalized as a Penn State program two years ago. Today it engages hundreds of students from across the University, about half of whom are engineering students. Forty to fifty students go overseas each year — most to Kenya — to work on ongoing multi-year projects.

The combination of students with many areas of interest and expertise is part of what makes HESE succeed, said Mehta, an assistant professor of engineering design. “At any given time, we have students from every college working on these ventures,” he said. “We are really leveraging the strengths of Penn State.”

“The challenge is in the implementation. You might have the best technology, the best business strategy — but it’s about making it happen. The execution is the challenge. That’s what we want the students to learn — how to execute, how to get things done.”

— HESE Director Khanjan Mehta

HESE has gotten students involved beyond those enrolled in the program itself. English technical writing classes, for example, have done documentation and written user manuals for HESE projects. “They are much more motivated because what they are doing is going to be valuable to someone,” Mehta said.

One of HESE’s furthest developed ventures is its greenhouse project, an effort to provide affordable greenhouses to small farmers in East Africa to expand their short growing season. Over the years, students tested a dozen prototypes, Mehta said. The eventual design costs approximately $600 in the marketplace, less than a fourth of the price of a standard greenhouse.

Using an agreement drafted by Penn State Law students, HESE’s greenhouse technology was licensed to a Nairobi firm. A partnership was established with two banks to allow farmers to finance the greenhouse purchases. A small percentage of the profits come back to Penn State to reinvest in projects.

HESE Greenhouse team 2012 in Kenya

The 2012 Greenhouse Team of Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program with the owners and staff from Mavuuno Greenhouses, in Nyeri, Kenya, following a workshop to train Mavuuno employees on greenhouse construction.

Image: Penn State

“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 Mehta. “It’s not just about the technology. The challenge is in the implementation. You might have the best technology, the best business strategy — but it’s about making it happen. The execution is the challenge. That’s what we want the students to learn — how to execute, how to get things done.”

HESE students are required to work on original publishable research projects. Shayne Bement, an engineering science major from Hershey, will present papers this year in Texas and California about his efforts to use rice bags as a low-cost substitute for plastic greenhouse covering. In the end, Bement found that the bags did not work for greenhouses — but do work well as shade netting.

“We fail more often than we succeed,” said Mehta. “Even when we fail, we chronicle exactly why and share that with others.”

Bement, a senior, will go to Cameroon this spring to work on expanding the greenhouse project into West Africa. HESE has made him a different person, he said. “I’ve never really traveled and I never expected to travel, to be honest,” he said. “Now I’m interacting with a Cameroonian businessman, preparing to travel by myself for six months … I’m not daunted by it at all!”

The HESE program has won numerous awards, including the 2013 Award for Community Engagement and Scholarship given by Penn State’s Council on Engaged Scholarship. It was also recognized by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities as the Northeast regional winner of the 2013 Outreach Scholarship W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award.

“The HESE project is just a wonderful example of engaged scholarship,” said Craig Weidemann, vice president for outreach and vice provost for online education and co-chair of Penn State’s Council on Engaged Scholarship. "The reciprocity between our students and the communities they engage is profound. There is huge learning on both sides of the collaboration."

Over the years the program has expanded to involve other campuses, including Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, which collaborates with HESE at its Kenya telemedicine site, and Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, where students in the plastics engineering program have been involved in the greenhouse project. “It’s a beautiful example of how we can leverage our strength as a large university,” Mehta said.

Faculty and students from Penn State Altoona have taken the HESE greenhouses to Rwanda, where they are working with a local school. “They’ve got the engineers who are developing the ideas — we see our role as being implementers,” said Lee Ann De Reus, professor of human development and family studies and women’s studies.

HESE Greenhouse team digging in Rwanda

Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry, front left, with members of the Greenhouse Team of Penn State's Humanitarian Engineering Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program, helping to clear the ground in preparation for greenhouse construction in Kigali, Rwanda.

Image: Penn State

De Reus said one of the most important aspects of the program is the shift in students’ perspective.

“Most of them are coming from a traditional service model of volunteerism,” she said. “This is a very different way of thinking — about engaging communities around their needs. Our students come away with a new approach to solving global problems: How do we come in as collaborators, not saviors?”

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Last Updated December 11, 2013