Designing for disaster relief

July 19, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Each year, warfare and natural disasters force millions in developing countries to flee their homes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes rose to nearly 60 million in 2014. Another 19 million were displaced due to weather.

To expose future engineers to this global challenge, student teams in seven sections of EDSGN 100 – Introduction to Engineering Design were tasked with investigating locations at risk for natural disasters and conflicts and designing a shelter for a location.  

Constraints for the shelters included: house at least six people, while allowing for some privacy from other family groups; designed to endure the team’s determined timeframe; initial design must be made to scale from cardboard, pressboard or foam board; only two teams per location and only two teams per disaster type permitted per class; and the shelter prototype must be at a 1:15 scale. In addition to these constraints, students presented their designs and cost analysis of their final designs in a final report.

With these parameters in mind, student teams were asked to create two versions of their shelter designs. The initial shelter was designed to scale and made from cardboard, pressboard or foam board. Key design and usability criteria to evaluate the shelter’s performance included efficiency, strength, costs, ease of assembly and transportation and consideration for human needs.

After testing the initial design, teams created a 3D SolidWorks or Google SketchUp model, ideally using the intended actual build materials. The teams then once again evaluated the key design and usability criteria.

Marissa Bacon’s team chose to design a shelter to be used in the Philippines as many Filipinos are displaced each year as a result of destructive tsunamis. To meet the key criteria, Bacon said her team wanted its shelter to be heavy enough to sustain winds, be easily put together and also have the option to be attached to other shelters.

The shelter would be made of a hard, strong plastic and would contain three rooms with a bed in each and a living room area. Two detachable doors would provide the option of attaching to another shelter. A slanted roof design allows for better rain runoff.

Though things didn’t always go as planned, Bacon said the end product was extremely rewarding.

“There were times when testing or planning did not go as we imagined, but when the final product was produced, our hard work became something physical. It was not just our ideas anymore,” she said. “Our ideas were put into action, produced and tested. We had something tangible to attest to all of our work.”

Samuel Vibostok’s team also chose to design a shelter for the Philippines as members of the team had prior knowledge regarding the storms the country experiences. The team focused on designing a sturdy shelter that was cost efficient. Throughout the process, Vibostok said he could see there were many different ways to account for the problem the team was attempting to solve.

“There is no single solution for a given problem,” he said. “Defining the problem is crucial, because without a defined problem, one may waste ample time developing a solution that does not solve for the problem at hand.”

For Torin Martutartus’ team, one of the most difficult decisions of the project was choosing a location, as there are unfortunately many countries in the world with thousands of displaced people. In the end, the team chose Pakistan, as it is regarded as one of the countries in the world with the greatest number of internally displaced people.

Martutartus said this project allowed his team members to immerse themselves in engineering process, from concept designs to prototyping.

After the initial testing of its half-cylinder shaped shelter, Martutartus’ group used its teamwork and engineering skills to insert more support structures – double-layered walls – at the ends of the shelter.

“Learning how to research a certain problem and then following through to the end of the engineering process has been an important learning aspect,” Martutartus said.

In addition to serving as an introduction to engineering design concepts and global issues, the EDSGN 100 displaced persons shelter project teaches engineering students one of the most critical components of engineering – how to work as a team.

“Teamwork is everything. If your team cannot find a way to work together, any hope of creating a presentable product is done,” said Bacon. “The way your team works together is directly equivalent to how your presentation and product actually turn out.”  

EDSGN 100 – Introduction to Engineering Design is a first-year engineering course required for most engineering majors. The course uses a design-driven curriculum with an emphasis placed on team-based design, communications skills and computer-aided design and analysis tools. EDSGN 100 is a course offered within Engineering Design, an interdisciplinary program housed within the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP).


  • Students testing strength of displaced persons shelter

    First-year engineering students test the strength of their displaced persons shelter. Key design and usability criteria to evaluate the shelter’s performance included efficiency, strength, costs, ease of assembly and transportation and consideration for human needs.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated July 27, 2016