Any college student has to deal with a concept of the ‘bubble’. I’m not talking about the soapy bubbles that you probably blew when you were 5 years old. This bubble is more of a shield, a shield that is strong during freshman year but slowly decreases is size, or thickness, and becomes more vulnerable as you move through the undergraduate experience. Around junior year, the strength of the bubble has decreased immensely, and the realities of adulthood, or what undergrads call, “real life”, begin to set in. Now…as my second semester of junior year dawns on me, I am totally feeling that the bubble is almost gone. See my excitement below:
So…as I was sitting in Starbucks today wondering what I want to do with my life (ya know, little things…right?), I began to do the normal thing a college student does when productivity seems possible. I started to surf the internet. My search began with a trip to Facebook…followed by randomly clicking on links to Wikipedia. I learned that you can actually ski in Arizona, that someone in Australia recently caught a crazy-looking shark, and that Bill Nye is spending his time on ESPN proving Bill Belichick doesn’t know how footballs deflate.
But…I also found something pretty cool, and yes it does involve a little engineering (but we’re not going to get too technical this time!). There’s a non-profit development company based in San Francisco, called D-Rev that’s designing solutions to many world issues. They’re currently developing low-cost devices to help babies with jaundice, and a knee-joint for amputees in the developing world. Yes, this does sound very Bioengineering-esque, but I wanted to highlight one of their older projects to show that engineering can be more than applying math concepts to solve issues, it lets us design solutions to problems that are present in the every-day world.
According to their past-project page, D-Rev once found a problem they wanted to solve in East Africa. As D-Rev states:
“Remote rural farmers with dairy livestock face challenges getting their milk to market since unpasteurized milk can spoil quickly in warm climates. Pasteurized milk spoils in as little as four hours in 30°C temperatures. To prolong shelf life, farmers in East Africa must bring their fresh milk to a chilling plant immediately after milking. For rural farmers, this is simply not possible—they live too far away.” (content was taken from here).
Now…this sounds more like a public health problem then an engineering problem. But, much of the creative processes that engineers use attempt to solve problems like this. This type of thinking is called “Design Thinking”, or as I like to think of it, simply using creativity to solve problems and build something. That something might be a prosthetic, it might be a particle collider, a new business process, or a way to help a community preserve milk. In the end, it’s something that is not limited to engineers or designers, it’s a concept we use in our daily lives.
How D-Rev attempted to solve this milk issue was to isolate the true problem. If you know anything about bacteria (which is what spoils milk), bacteria multiple exponentially. If you need a little math brush-up, this means that if we originally have 2 bacteria, we might have 4 the next second, 8 one second afterwards, and this growth is multiplied by 2 each second. This is called exponential growth (though in reality the exponential function is a little more complicated…but we won’t get too much into that). Essentially, once we reach a certain amount of bacterial growth, the milk is spoiled. The company also noted that there aren’t a lot of available resources to preserve milk. Therefore, they thought that the solution involved either protecting the milk from getting spoiled, or to somehow kill off the bacteria before spoilage could occur.
D-Rev tried to explore a technological innovation to help solve the problem, but decided that they needed to really explore more about the user-side of the milk process before moving forward. Sadly, funding for the project was insufficient, and they closed it in 2010. You can read the study they wrote here. It’s pretty cool!
So…I got a little technical with the whole “exponential growth” deal, but it wasn’t too bad! As you can see, math, engineering and design thinking are intertwined in a very beautiful way. Bringing people together who are creative thinkers can lead to some pretty cool results and tackle the world’s biggest problems. D-Rev is just one example, but there are many companies who are solving real-world issues using design thinking as their basis. Definitely check them out when you get a chance!
Now, it’s your turn to find your own problem in the world, and help solve it to create a better future. For me right now, I guess it’s the personal problem of figuring out the next steps in my life and dealing with the bubble bursting. But…if I ever have the opportunity to do something like D-Rev’s project above, and use my background to help people live better lives, I think there’s one beautiful future ahead.