ECE in Kenya: Engineering in the Developing World

Two years ago, the Learning Abroad Center contacted ECE faculty Prof. Paul Imbertson to discuss the possibility of setting up a program in engineering. The program would utilize the resources of the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) office  in Kenya and would be grounded in MSID’s vision of experiential learning and global dialogue that addresses development issues. Lacking both a summer program and engineering-based opportunities for students, MSID Kenya saw this as an opportunity to broaden and strengthen the array of experiences it can offer students.

KNYA 3001: The Details

MSID’s programs across the globe are rooted in its philosophy of encouraging lifelong learning and engagement that is holistic, culturally mindful and relevant, and invested in long term and sustainable solutions. To set up an engineering program that aligns with these goals, Paul visited Kenya to identify the developmental needs of the place, and an ideal entry point for an engineering program that could meet some of these needs. There were several meetings with officials and private citizens, but nothing transpired till a chance meeting with local businessman Josphat Kariuki in a coffee shop.

Paul  soon learned that Josphat was interested in exploring the use of renewable energy resources and demonstrating their feasibility in the local community. (Josphat is the owner of Equator Fuel Wood Energy Savings, a company that focuses on meeting energy needs through “alternative technologies that are affordable and user-friendly.”) Seeing Josphat’s goals as a suitable entry point that were also in step with MSID’s vision and his own objectives for the summer program, Paul soon began working out the details of the program. Envisioning the program as a site for engagement and education, and the location in Kenya as a space for testing and demonstrating the physical devices that would harness energy from renewable resources, he created KNYA 3001: Engineering in the Developing World.

Modeling it on the Nordisk Folkecenter, a facility in Denmark that he frequently engages with, Paul hopes the MSID program in Kenya will similarly provide a multifaceted holistic experience to engineering students from the University of Minnesota.

The course is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors from all areas of engineering. To encourage participation, the only requirement in place is that applicants complete at least two courses in their engineering major. It is offered as a 3-week combination of coursework and field experiences situated in the Kenyan context. Students spend their time in Nairobi and the rural areas surrounding Mt. Kenya. The experience is guided by experts who have been working in the field and with the MSID program for several years, which makes it academically rewarding and engaging.

Prof. Imbertson has received sustained support from other ECE faculty in his efforts to set up and establish the now successful program. Key supporters have been Prof. Douglas Ernie and Prof. Bethanie Stadler, with Prof. Ernie visiting the site in 2015 to get the very first session of the program rolling.

KNYA 3001, New and Improved

As with all new initiatives, KNYA 3001 has had its share of hiccups. When the program was first unveiled in the spring of 2015, student interest was lukewarm at best. And there were uncertainties which impacted the group’s overall learning experience. But this first session was the road test that gave everyone a true sense of gaps in the curriculum and an understanding of how best to fill them.

Based on their first experience, professors Imbertson, Ernie and Stadler went back to the drawing board to review and tweak the learning experience. One of the key changes implemented was to use GCC 3011: Pathways to Renewable Energy, a Grand Challenges Curriculum (GCC) course as a source for technologies that can be deployed, monitored, and potentially improved in KNYA 3001. Given the short duration of the summer program, this arrangement allows for both courses to complement and grow from each other. Of course, while KNYA 3001 tracks the success and impact of such technologies, it will also develop students’ competencies for working in cross-cultural contexts.

As Andrew Swenson testifies, the experience went beyond lessons in engineering: “It was about bridging the gap between cultures, learning about the differences and the similarities between us, learning from each other, and helping each other progress in this world.

What Lies Ahead

For the second iteration of the program slated for 2016, Paul enlisted the help of the University’s student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) to encourage students to register for the program. NSBE here is uniquely equipped to aid in this: the chapter has a significant number of members who are from the African continent, and have spent several of their formative years there. Their singular perspective and understanding of the program’s context has worked successfully to communicate the strengths of KNYA 3001 to undergraduate students. Eventually, Paul hopes to actively engage NSBE with the course. A step in this direction is his plan to include Stella Mandago, a native of Tanzania, UMN ECE graduate, and NSBE alumnus as an instructor to teach parts of the course.

The success of the second offering of KNYA 3001 has been encouraging. The summer 2016 iteration of the course saw a great deal of interest, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

For student Al-Khalil Al-Riyami: “The Kenyan study abroad program was a hands-on experience in exploring renewable energy. Not only did I learn about the energy sources being implemented in Kenya, I also learned about the Kenyan culture and the drive of those committed to renewable energy as the primary power source of the country.”

With word spreading on the mission and objectives of the program, Paul has been approached by several green energy groups and other grassroots movements seeking to collaborate with the summer program or set up similar initiatives in other locations. There are also plans to engage the IEEE student chapter in the course in a supportive capacity, and potentially link it with initiatives that Paul leads or collaborates with in countries such as Nicaragua and Denmark. Right now, KNYA 3001 seems poised to leap from strength to strength.