Using worms to process organic waste and help village farmers in southern Indian grow better crops has won an Engineers Without Borders Australasian prize for a team of first-year engineering students from The University of Western Australia.
UWA won the Overall Champion Team Award for designing an innovative, sustainable engineering solution to address cultural values, economic conditions and environmental constraints and, if possible, also provide a livelihood for Devikulam villagers in Tamil Nadu.
The win reflects a new approach to engineering education at UWA that embeds cultural, economic and environmental considerations in engineering problem-solving.
Entries were judged by representatives from the Pitchandikulam Forest Organisation and Engineers Without Borders (EWB). UWA's champion team included Robert Duncan, Timothy Ha, Sam Lei, Caitlin Mitchell and Matthew Rondoni.
Their winning project uses vermicomposting to provide an environmentally sound and sustainable way of dealing with organic waste. The cost-effective process uses local worms to eliminate organic waste, produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer and create a product to enrich the region's soil. The compost can be used within the village or sold as a non-chemical fertiliser.
The EWB Challenge is a design program for first-year university students coordinated by Engineers without Borders Australia and delivered in partnership with Australasian universities.
The Challenge is part of UWA's foundation engineering unit, "Introduction to Professional Engineering: Global Challenges in Engineering" which encourages students to develop an awareness and understanding of significant engineering challenges that exist in local and global contexts.
Students learn about design, teamwork and communication through real and inspiring sustainable development projects. Students had the opportunity last year to address waste management issues in rural India, Buenos Aires and Perth.
Dr Rita Armstrong, an anthropologist, and Winthrop Professor Caroline Baillie, materials engineer and UWA's Chair in Engineering Education, have jointly coordinated this unit which is offered this year in UWA's Engineering Science major.
Dr Armstrong said it was important for engineering students to seek technical solutions in a cultural, economic and environmental context.
"The traditional approach to engineering problem-solving where students are limited to finding purely technical solutions is behind us," Dr Armstrong said.
"Rapid globalisation requires students to learn to develop new ways of questioning the world around them and apply this to a range of real-world problems.
"This unique approach to engineering education has been embedded in our new foundation engineering units and it is this kind of learning - in small groups grappling with real life problems - that will equip our students to deal with the challenges ahead in their working lives."
UWA students have won the EWB Challenge three times in the past four years.
Photo - Students names from left: Caitlen Mitchell, Sam Lei, Timothy Ha and Robert Duncan