Four female engineers fight for better refugee camp conditions

Sara Schleede

Since late August, more than 660,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to seek refuge in overcrowded, mud-covered tents in Bangladesh. Many are living without clean water or hygiene facilities.

At UT, four mechanical engineering students sit in study rooms, crouched over notebooks filled with research and diagrams, designing a trash compactor in hopes of improving waste management and sanitation conditions for victims of what the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“The past four years we’ve been learning all this stuff in theory,” said Claire Hsu, mechanical engineering senior. “Being able to apply that to something that is useful and helpful and then seeing something being made out of nothing, that’s the most exciting thing.”

The all-female team’s project is sponsored by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who submitted seven separate projects for the class, all centered around helping underserved communities.

The project is part of the mechanical engineering senior design project class, the second half of the capstone design sequence required of all mechanical engineering majors. Companies and organizations sponsor design problems for students to solve. Students then divide into teams of four and pick a design topic to pursue throughout their final semester.

“We’re working with a different group of people — a community that is in the developing process that’s in a humanitarian crisis right now,” said Sarosh Nandwani, a mechanical engineering and anthropology senior. “I think the cultural aspects of that are very interesting and very important, and something that a lot of engineers don’t get exposed to.”

Hsu said most mechanical engineers enter the field because they want to make a difference in the world, but most industry jobs do not offer those opportunities. This project is a chance to practice skills they might not have a chance to utilize in their future careers, she said.

“I think it’s cool that (we can use) the things we’ve learned throughout the past four years and apply it to something that can actually maybe help someone and change someone’s life — the thing that people start out saying that they want to do, but kind of lose sight of along the way,” Hsu said.

The team consists of Hsu, Nandwani and mechanical engineering seniors Mallory Claypool and Joanna Boy. While the project is still in its beginning stages, they plan to create a prototype and provide an instruction manual for either a household or community-wide trash compactor completed by the end of the semester.

Mechanical engineering professor Richard Crawford, who oversees the 45 design teams, said students often have more motivation for these projects than for those created by a professor and without any real-life impact.

“Engineering really is about helping people,” Crawford said. “That’s what engineers do. We solve problems for humans. It’s starkly evident when you work on projects like these.”