India produces half a million engineers each year, but according to a World Bank survey, 64 percent of their employers say they are only “somewhat” or “not at all satisfied” with their work. At the same time, most Indians’ only link to the digital world is a cellular phone, but so far, most development programs have not capitalized on the vast potential of mobile technology for effecting social change.
A team of MIT students has a solution to these twin problems — and this summer, they will get to implement their project, called the Indian Mobile Initiative (IMI), thanks to $22,500 in seed funding from MIT’s IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge. The winners of the competition were announced Monday evening at an awards ceremony in Kresge Auditorium.
A total of $145,000 worth of seed grants will be split among 14 teams to implement projects addressing barriers to well-being around the world. Entries were judged on their innovation, feasibility and potential for community impact.
The annual IDEAS Competition — which stands for Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action and Service — was juried by experts across a range of disciplines who awarded three grants of $10,000, two grants of $7,500 and five grants of $5,000. This year’s inaugural Global Challenge was divided into two segments: five juried awards of $10,000 each, and five Community Choice awards of $5,000, voted by users of the Global Challenge platform online.
The 2011 competitions
This year’s ceremony was special for two reasons. First, MIT President Susan Hockfield and her husband, Dr. Thomas Byrne, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, announced a personal donation to the Institute in the form of a contribution to the Public Service Center (PSC) to help support the IDEAS competition. “We believe it’s truly our students who are going to make a difference,” Hockfield said. “Our gift represents our confidence in MIT students, and we hope it will be a catalyst for others to join us in supporting the PSC.”
Hockfield said that PSC’s projects, which often involve students working in a developing nation or an impoverished area in the United States, are “small activities that add up to big things.” She added that the impact of these activities goes two ways: The communities benefit from the students’ work, and the students “have a transformational experience” that often determines the direction of their future education and careers. Introducing the winners of this year’s IDEAS competition, Hockfield said that the students who participated “have shaken off the label of ‘Generation Y’ to become ‘Generation Why Not?’”
Second, 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of the IDEAS Competition, a milestone commemorated in a speech by MIT senior lecturer Amy Smith, creator of the D-Lab series of courses, and Sally Susnowitz, director of the PSC. When the IDEAS Competition began, Susnowitz said, “MIT was a different place,” with very few opportunities for students to take part in real-world, hands-on activities aimed at international development. But over the course of the last decade, she said, such opportunities have burgeoned.
Students have wasted no time taking advantage of those opportunities. The IMI team “swept” the competition, winning awards in all three of the categories. Their project intends to address the gap between engineering education and employability in India, as well as the untapped potential of mobile technology as a vehicle for social change in the country. The group cites a lack of emphasis on practical applications in India’s highly theoretical engineering programs, yielding graduates who are ill equipped to implement their knowledge. The IMI team, which consists of sophomores Aakriti Shroff, Kyle Fisher, Thiago Vieira and Pranav Ramkrishnan, will travel to India to conduct workshops with engineering students to help them identify ways in which mobile technology can address social problems. The project won a total of $22,500: a $10,000 grant from the Global Challenge jury, a $7,500 grant from IDEAS and a $5,000 Community Choice award.
Four other projects won awards in two of the categories: Solar-Powered Autoclave, InnoBox, the Low-Cost Curriculum for the Blind and EyeCatra.
The Solar-Powered Autoclave project addresses the need for a low-cost, efficient way to sterilize medical equipment, a health problem faced by many developing countries. Using portable technology, the team will make use of a resource many developing countries do have plenty of: sunlight. They will work with a community in Nicaragua to develop and implement a cheap and reliable way for nurses to clean medical equipment for safe reuse. The team won a $10,000 Global Challenge award and a $7,500 IDEAS award.
A lack of scientists and engineers can stunt economic growth in both developed and developing countries. The InnoBox team attributes students’ lack of interest in science to deficiencies in science education — specifically, inadequate teaching materials in primary schools. They plan to address the problem with inexpensive and portable kits for teaching science and engineering, called “InnoBoxes” and developed in conjunction with Cambridge-based United InnoWorks Academy. Using their $15,000 worth of seed funding (a $10,000 IDEAS award and a $5,000 Community Choice award), the group will partner with a middle school in South Africa to bring the kits to more than 300 students.
The Low-Cost Curriculum for the Blind also addresses the problem of accessible science and math education. The team cites the crippling academic segregation and social stigma faced by blind students, especially in developing countries. The group will work to develop a low-cost elementary and middle-school curriculum that can be implemented in a variety of settings for both blind and sighted students. The group won a $5,000 IDEAS award and a $5,000 Community Choice award, and will partner with the Boston-based organization Empowerment Through Integration to introduce their curriculum to schools in Lebanon.
EyeCatra plans to address the problem of diagnosing cataracts — the leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide — with inexpensive, portable technology that eliminates the need for a trained clinician. CATRA is a new technology from the MIT Media Lab that can detect cataracts with a compact eyepiece attached to a cell phone. The snap-on self-evaluation tool is inexpensive and can be used anywhere. Working in conjunction with an eye clinic in Hyderabad, India, the team plans to bring the technology to 5,000 people. EyeCatra won a $5,000 IDEAS award and $5,000 Community Choice award.
Along with InnoBox, the second and third winners of a $10,000 grant from the IDEAS Competition were ALCAS (Advanced, Low-Cost Autoclave Solutions), a project bringing inexpensive autoclave technology to clinics in Nepal; and Assistive Technology, enabling people with severe physical disabilities to use mobile computing devices. Other winners of the $10,000 Global Challenge juried award were: Kosim Water Keg, bringing easy-to-use, in-home water purification systems to communities in Ghana; the Practical Energy Network, an education project to bridge the technical divide between those who design energy technologies and those who use them; and Maa-Bara, a closed-loop, sustainable means of increasing food security in the Niger Delta.
Other winners of a $5,000 IDEAS award were Safe Water World, preventing water-based diseases through low-cost microbial tests for drinking water; Hydroharvest, cost-effective rainwater harvesting systems for communities in Rwanda; and Biodiesel@MIT, a new filtration system for handling oil waste designed for Roxbury Green Power, a green-jobs cooperative in Boston. The fifth winner of a $5,000 Global Challenge Community Choice award was AQUA, an online game to raise awareness and funds to solve water and sanitation problems in developing countries.
This year’s winners were chosen from 86 teams that offered solutions in areas including agriculture, medicine, education, energy, water resources and transportation. Judges for the juried Global Challenge award included leaders from organizations such as UNICEF, the World Bank, Global Giving, Massachusetts General Hospital, The Millennium Villages Project, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and many others. The Community Choice awards were decided by more than 14,000 people in 117 countries who read descriptions of the projects and cast votes online.