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Sun boils water when BYU engineering outreach class helps giant lake’s island-dwellers

Boiling eggs is super-easy at home. Unless your home is an island floating on a lake 12,500 feet above sea level with no electricity or gas.

That’s why this month 19 BYU student engineers traveled to Peru’s fabled high mountain Lake Titicaca to deliver a special solar oven as part of their course on sustainable engineering projects that help improve local people’s standard of living.

“This was the most helpful class I’ve taken at BYU,” said Tyler Carr, a senior mechanical engineering major who lead the solar oven project. “It was an engineering class, but I learned a lot more than engineering. This was a big eye-opener about working with other cultures.”

The students worked with the people of the Uros islands, who were discussed in a talk by Elder Ronald Rasband in the April 2008 LDS General Conference. The islands are constructed from floating beds of reeds and soil about 9 feet thick, anchored to the lakebed with boulders. Obviously, power is tough to come by, so the Uros cook fish, fowl and homegrown potatoes with expensive propane stoves or time-consuming, reed-fed fires.

The students sought to develop a solar oven that would be easy to construct and maintain using only local materials. Two parabolic “wings” focus the rays of the sun, which burns bright nine months out of the year at the high elevation. With some pluck and persistence, the students discovered on their last day that silver wrapping paper purchased from a shop on the mainland reflected light just as effectively as the Mylar they had brought from Utah.

A highlight of the experience for Corinne Olsen, a senior chemical engineering major, was a 90-minute conversation, through an interpreter, with a local woman about life on Utama island.

“I was impressed with how engineering and technology shapes a community,” said Olsen's classmate, Jasmine Fullmer, “and how as an engineer you can have an influence in that role of building a community.”

The students, who paid much of their own way, left behind the mold used to make the “wings” out of fiberglass and a working cooker that boils 12 eggs in 30 minutes. They brought home feedback they’ll implement to make improvements during next year’s class and return trip.

And there’s still plenty of work to be done. The planned enhancements to the solar cooker will make it easier for the islanders to use the mold to build more. The students also selected a new project to fulfill a need the islanders identified – an inexpensive system of cups and pulleys to feed a water tower that can purify and heat water for drinking and bathing. And they strengthened their relationships and lines of communication with the island residents – a local team leader has been identified for each project next year’s class will pursue.

“This was an experience that allowed the students to take a step outside themselves and look at problems from someone else’s perspective,” said Randy Lewis, a professor of chemical engineering who teaches the Global Engineering Outreach Projects course. “That’s a skill they are going to need in their careers.”

BYU engineering faculty Spencer and Stephanie Magleby and Matt Jones also accompanied the students.


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I love this. Real impact in the Real World, Real Education
  6/12/2010 11:21 AM by Joshua

I love this. I only wish there was a way for non engineers (such as myself) to get involved.

Thinking of the bigger picture
  6/7/2010 10:40 AM by Gregory

I agree with Tiffany. Often in engineering, looking at a single prototype or first time product development isn't, by itself, economically (or in this case environmentally) self justified. Having students see the benefit that engineering can provide to people in other parts of the world and the actual challenges with implementing those technologies on the ground easily could pay for itself in the coming years. I'd say that this project is or will be an unquestionable net positive economically, socially, and environmentally. My 2 cents.

  6/3/2010 3:32 PM by Tiffany

There are likely a lot of benefits that come from sending over a class to interact with the people they helped instead of just making a phone call and sending a package. More than likely they experienced something with another culture that might inspire them in a lifetime effort to continue to help people in need and create solutions for people who wouldn't otherwise be able to themselves. They learned first hand that they can make a real difference in an entires population's lives and were able to see it and carry it out from start to finish. I think thats worth the plane ride. Cultivating a practice that will hopefully continue in each one of their lives. Sometimes charity requires a sacrifice for instance a few plane tickets, but if it perpetuates good practice and help to people in need then i say go for it.

  6/2/2010 4:26 PM by Richard

His point is that it seems penny-wise and pound-foolish. Frankly, I'm not sure how this is better (time-wise) than their reed fires...hard to argue that reeds aren't renewable. Did their reed fires take longer than a half an hour to boil water, I guess?

Irony explained
  6/2/2010 4:21 PM by Ross

The irony wasn't in what they were trying to give the people of Utama island. Solar powered "stoves" (or whatever you want to heat up) are a great solution for these people. The irony I was pointing out was the juxtaposition of spending thousands of dollars and using "dirty unsustainable transportation" to transport over a dozen people to explain the technology to them for an environmentally motivated cause. The most environmentally "friendly" way to give the technology to them would have been to use the most "responsible" and least environmentally costly method to transfer the knowledge. For example, a phone call combined with a package (containing the mold etc) or even sending just one person.

Answer to Ross's Irony
  6/2/2010 2:47 PM by Jane

The students went down on a single trip to deliver a technology that will benefit residents of the Uros Islands every time they cook food for ages to come. The students showed residents how to use a renewable energy source, not how to make sustainable pots.

Just a simple question
  6/2/2010 1:25 PM by Ross

So we send 20+ people in airplanes thousands of miles to show people how to create "sustainable" solar powered heating pots? Anyone else see the irony in this situation?

BYU Funnel Cooker research
  6/2/2010 11:40 AM by John

Just a suggestion for future reference. Regarding efficiency, safety, and cost effectiveness you may want to look at previous work done at BYU: This was designed specifically for third world peoples and hundreds have been shipped to Haiti, Bolivia, Kenya, Turkey, Ecuador, and Mali. Keep up the good work.

Heated Pot
  6/2/2010 9:28 AM by Jay

I noticed that the pot used to boil the eggs appears to be a silver color. Wouldn't it be more effective using a black colored pot?

Why build them
  5/27/2010 11:30 AM by Mason

It is widely thought that they built the islands to protect themselves. If there were thieves about, the islands could be moved. It did not protect them from the inca or the spanish though. I guess your only worry on a reed island would be flaming arrows!

  5/27/2010 10:43 AM by Diane

From the article, I inferred the islands are man-made. Why did these people's ancestors build them, isolating themselves from the mainland?

Story Highlights

  • Engineering students built a solar cooker that can boil 12 eggs in 30 minutes.
  • They delivered it to people who live on floating islands in Peru's Lake Titicaca.
  • Eventually the people will be able to make more solar ovens themselves.

Click here to download
Residents of the Uros islands on Lake Titicaca use a student-design solar cooker to boil eggs.

Click here to download
Erik Archibald demonstrates the solar cooker.

Click here to download
The BYU Global Engineering Outreach students and faculty pose with residents of Utama island.
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