northeastern university seal

Cultural immersion sparks innovation

As part of Northeastern’s inau­gural Dia­logue of Inno­va­tion and Civ­i­liza­tion pro­gram, more than a dozen stu­dents devel­oped sus­tain­able solu­tions to a range of eco­nomic and agri­cul­tural chal­lenges facing farmers in Cameroon.

The pro­gram, set in the town of Bali, was estab­lished and launched by the Col­lege of Engi­neering this summer. Over a six-​​week period, stu­dents worked with more than two dozen peers from Cameroon Chris­tian Uni­ver­sity to ease the chal­lenges facing farmers through a human-​​centered design model—an approach in which the needs of the people are the focus of the solu­tions. The stu­dents’ approach met three req­ui­site cri­teria: desir­ability, fea­si­bility, and sustainability.

The immer­sive experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­nity com­prised classes and field­work in area vil­lages and cities. There, stu­dents con­nected with many stakeholders—from the farmers them­selves to gov­ern­ment officials—to iden­tify soci­etal needs and inno­v­a­tive, engineering-​​based solutions.

“The trip to Cameroon has for­ever shaped my per­cep­tion of engi­neering and devel­op­ment,” said Gloria Sin­gleton, a chem­ical engi­neering major who par­tic­i­pated in the Dia­logue. “The oppor­tu­nity to make a dif­fer­ence, to build, to grow, and to be part of some­thing sub­stan­tial will stay with me as I nav­i­gate the path ahead.”

The pro­gram was led by Richard Harris, assis­tant dean of aca­d­emic schol­ar­ship, men­toring, and out­reach, and director of the Pro­gram in Mul­ti­cul­tural Engi­neering, as well as William Tita, lec­turer of entre­pre­neur­ship and inno­va­tion. Lauren Machunis, an aca­d­emic adviser in the Col­lege of Engi­neering, accom­pa­nied them.

Stu­dents ulti­mately pro­posed seven solu­tions, among which involved: gath­ering infor­ma­tion about the town’s progress and demo­graph­ical infor­ma­tion by taking a census; increasing rain­water har­vesting poten­tial and training vil­lagers to use pedal pow­ered pumps; and increasing public knowl­edge of water-​​borne dis­eases and pro­viding tips for man­aging alter­na­tive sources of water.

The Dia­logue also pro­vided stu­dents the oppor­tu­nity to under­stand the his­tor­ical, cul­tural, social, and polit­ical con­text of Bali’s tech­no­log­ical chal­lenges. Over the course of the pro­gram, they exam­ined how these chal­lenges may be addressed through tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tion, social inno­va­tion, and entrepreneurship.

“Our objec­tive uti­lized the group of stu­dents as the change agents in order to effec­tively address the chal­lenges that the farmers are facing,” Harris said. “We went to Cameroon with the vision to start an ini­tia­tive that encour­ages the trans­for­ma­tion of raw mate­rials into a more prof­itable fin­ished product and came out with three pro­posed solu­tions that we believe will facil­i­tate this change.”

The stu­dents’ work aligned with the United Nations Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals. If taken into con­sid­er­a­tion by local author­i­ties, Harris said their projects could lead to sus­tain­able com­mu­nity devel­op­ment and an improved stan­dard of living with regard to water resources, renew­able energy, and com­mu­nity empowerment.


Related Faculty: Richard Harris