Engineers tend to be associated with straight-forward, analytical and math-orientated thinking, which is why the first year students of Engineering 251 were in for a shock.
The 600 students enrolled in the mandatory design and communication class were required to build a project from scratch that could be implemented for use in Ghana.
"They have to figure it out for themselves, there's no little box of tools," said engineering professor Dr. Daryl Caswell. "That's where the real engineering comes in."
At the beginning of the semester the students learned about Ghana and some of the problems facing the African nation. They then had about six weeks to design and construct useful machines.
"We didn't get a lot of direction," said Jennifer Kwong, a member of Team Toaster, which constructed a simple table saw using only wood, pulleys and a stationary bike. "It was more like, come in and work on it."
The stationary bike represents the 10-horsepower diesel engines which are currently one of the only sources of energy available in Ghana. Kwong said forestry is a big industry in Ghana, and the government encourages processing of more wood products, rather than lumber for exportation.
Another team addressed the problem of food preservation.
"In Ghana, there is food rotting in the fields even though people are starving," said Tyler Savage.
Savage and his team figured that drying was the best method as it allows food to maintain its taste and nutrition. They constructed a food dehydrator with a spinning fan which would create convection.
"On paper it was easy," said Kari Idlend, another member of the team. "But then we didn't know if it would work or not. We had to think: How many fans do we need? How could we direct the air with the fans? How fast do we want them to spin?"
After Christmas the designs will be narrowed down from 150. The top four will eventually go to shop drawings, manufacturing and then hopefully be sent to Ghana in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders. Currently, Caswell is applying for funding to send eight students down to Ottawa for the EWB conference.
Caswell was very pleased with the results and the ingenuity of his first year students.
"They are right out of high school and used to ticking off boxes," he said. "When they have no other choice great stuff seems to happen."
Although the students admitted to spending hours of time outside the classroom on research and construction, they are all excited about the opportunity to possibly make peoples' lives easier.
"This is the only redeeming class I've had so far in engineering," confessed Greg Smith, another member of Team Toaster.