Baylor Engineers Focus Talent, Interest On Needs In Developing Countries

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    Dr. John Pumwa (l) and Dr. Walter Bradley inspect a distiller used to convert coconut oil into diesel fuel. Jason Raddin photo
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    The mountainous terrain of Papua New Guinea provides beautiful landscapes but poses problems for energy needs.
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    Rainforest waterfall in an isolated region of Papua New Guinea
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    Coconut groves along the coast in Papua New Guinea
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    Engineers With a Mission (l to r): Sponsor Brian Thomas, Chris Matcek (junior, Katy), Amy Bowen (junior, Katy),Bunmi Otegbade (sophomore, Lagos, Nigeria),Leah Richter (junior, Corpus Christi), Lindsay Mack (senior, Newport, Ark.) Jason Raddin photo
Aug. 31, 2004

by Judy Long

What is the most common occupation in the world? According to Dr. Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders, the primary job of two-thirds of the world's people is simply staying alive until the end of the day.

Dr. Walter Bradley, Baylor University distinguished professor of engineering, wants to change that through the development and use of what he calls "appropriate technology" for developing countries.

Bradley gathered experts, including Amadei, in May for the Symposium on Science and Appropriate Technology for Developing Countries. The conference provided a first step toward formation of a center for appropriate technologies for developing countries at Baylor to design strategies for boosting economies of developing countries.

The appropriate technology approach to helping people in other countries involves not only providing needed infrastructure, such as safe, clean drinking water and a power source, but also helping locals identify timely products utilizing their natural resources to produce for the world market.

"In many underdeveloped parts of the world, people have neither the resources nor the infrastructure to utilize technology from the developed world. We propose to help them by developing technology that is appropriate to their local needs and resources," Bradley said.

Bradley envisions employing resources from a wide spectrum of disciplines--engineering, computer science, chemistry, biology, geology, environmental sciences and business, as well as cultural anthropology and entrepreneurship--to improve life in developing countries.

"The purpose of the symposium was to spur participants toward a bigger vision of what is possible as we seek to use our technical skills to help the poor around the world. It also served to bring together an active network of people who share a common interest in a humanitarian goal," Bradley said.

Student Interest

The concept of helping developing countries identify and develop appropriate technology is gaining enthusiasm among Baylor engineering students, too.

Electrical engineering junior Leah Richter, from Corpus Christi, said she looked at other mission organizations on campus, but she wanted to participate in a group where she could use her engineering skills in a missions setting. She also checked out engineering organizations on other campuses but couldn't find the student organization she wanted.

"We also looked into several different organizations that already did engineering work in developing countries, but none were faith-based. One even had a clause saying you couldn't go in their name with a religious purpose.

"I know engineering is my calling from God--it's what I'm supposed to do, and I wanted to find a way to start using it for ministry and mission work," Richter said.

Her quest was satisfied when Brian Thomas, a lecturer in electrical engineering, brought together several students with a similar interest.

"Talking to students, I saw their interest in an organization that practiced engineering mission work, so we got together and formed this group. It's grown into a student organization, Engineers With a Mission, and we're seeking non-profit status," Thomas said. Contingent on locating funding, they hope to spend the summer of 2005 serving in Papua New Guinea, a predominantly Christian country located on a South Pacific island which it shares with the Moslem Indonesia.

Thomas was part of the entourage of 22 Baylor professors who traveled to northern Iraq in December 2003 to conduct education seminars for the faculty at Dohuk University. Seeing the need in an economically depressed country ignited his desire to help. "The trip to Iraq planted a seed for me. The firsthand exposure to a non-western culture was transforming for me. The poverty, pain and struggle of the Kurds in Iraq affected me deeply."

Thomas said he is motivated to see a change, not just in the developing country, but also in his students.

"I draw inspiration and motivation from a portion of scripture: when you've done it unto the least of these, you've done it unto me," Thomas said, referring to the parable in Matthew 25.

"I hope, while serving people in developing countries, to demonstrate God's love with a tangible expression, to transform the lives of the students, so they will see their engineering careers as an avenue for service. We're cultivating in them skills to be used to satisfy a calling and empower them for a life of service, not just to make money. If we can alter their perspective by just 10 degrees, it will make a big difference over the period of their careers," he said.

A Natural Resource in Need of a New Use

The possibilities for Papua New Guinea came about through Dr. John Pumwa, a visiting professor at Baylor. Pumwa, deputy head of the department of mechanical engineering at Papua New Guinea University of Technology, is developing an alternative fuel plan which converts Papua New Guinea's abundance of coconuts into biodiesel fuel to meet a critical energy need.

Pumwa, who completed doctoral work in mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University in 1997, is the son of early converts of Papua New Guinea's first Australian Baptist missionaries. He credits his Christian lifestyle as the influence that enabled him to become the first Papua New Guinean to earn a doctorate in an engineering field.

Pumwa landed at Baylor for his sabbatical year almost by accident. While looking for a school where he could conduct his research, he came across Baylor's web site and saw Bradley's name in the engineering department. It turned out to be the same Walter Bradley from whom he had taken classes at Texas A&M. When he contacted Bradley, they agreed Pumwa's sabbatical leave provided a unique opportunity for them to work together on a project in appropriate technology for Papua New Guinea and to establish a long term relationship with Baylor and his university.

In an effort to bolster Papua New Guinea's economy and to help the unprivileged in remote parts of the country, Pumwa's university established a center, the Appropriate Technology and Community Development Institute (ATCDI), to develop appropriate sustainable technologies. Besides looking for marketable products from the country's resources, ATCDI envisioned improving the national water and energy supplies by studying the feasibility of hydro-power and solar energy. Since Papua New Guinea is so isolated geographically, energy generated in-country is crucial to uninterrupted supply. The proposal for the center is under review for funding.

Pumwa devised the idea of using coconut oil for fuel as he passed abandoned coconut plantations along the coastlines on his drive to the highlands. Piles of coconuts lay on the ground uncollected because the dried coconut kernel, or copra, prices had fallen so low that plantation owners could not afford to hire workers to pick coconuts. Copra formerly was a chief export from Papua New Guinea. When Pumwa considered other markets for the fruit, he realized improved coconut oil would be an acceptable substance for fuel and could possibly provide a commodity to be exported.

A recently developed "appropriate technology" makes the plan workable--the direct micro-expeller, a portable machine that crushes and presses coconuts and separates the oil, which was formerly a difficult task that could be carried out only with heavy machinery. Use of the machine means small business owners could extract coconut oil instead of depending on established copra milling companies.

While Pumwa explores ways to process coconut oil into biodiesel fuel, he would like an economist to conduct a macro-economic analysis in Papua New Guinea to be sure his plan is affordable.

Pumwa is recommending an agreement between the Papua New Guinea University of Technology and Baylor to train Papua New Guineans in engineering, business, economics and other disciplines so they can take their skills home to improve their country.

A Call to Action

Thomas and Pumwa are discussing programs with ATCDI where Baylor student engineers can make a contribution. Because Papua New Guinea has such a mountainous landscape, there are a number of isolated people groups with no access to electricity, roads or a good source of fuel.

"With the mountainous landscape and an abundance of rain, there are innumerable small mountain streams that can be channeled for use, they could use it in small scale hydroelectric generation. A micro-hydroelectric generator--a really small device about the size of a dishwasher--would produce a reliable source of electricity for them. Hoover dam in microcosm!" Thomas said.

"We have definite plans, but we don't have definite funding. So we're seeking funding with a certain air of desperation," he added.

Bradley was praying for direction on how to get started in the appropriate technology area when Pumwa called him, and he sees the Papua New Guinea prospect as a providential opportunity for Baylor. He interprets the numerous biblical commands to serve the poor as a call to action for engineers and scientists who have the knowledge base to help the developing world.

"As a Christian university, Baylor is uniquely positioned to respond to the call to serve the world's poorest. We hope to obtain funding from the United Nations development program eventually, but the work has to begin with funds from private sources at Baylor and from other concerned Christians," Bradley said.

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