Student Engineers Help with Sustainable Technology


Dartmouth students are a welcome sight in the African village of Banda, Rwanda. Thayer School of Engineering’s Theodore Sumers ’12 recently returned from two months in Banda working as a member of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE).


Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering’s Theodore Sumers ’12 in downtown Banda, Rwanda, accompanied by a group of curious children. (photo courtesy of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering)

“I was truly surprised by the number of people who approached us and thanked us for our work there,” says DHE President Sumers. “They told us that we had made a huge difference in their village.”

Sumers heads up a team that has been working since 2008 to bring electricity to Banda’s 4,000 residents—an effort that has won them a 2011 Outstanding Student Humanitarian Prize from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers during the institute’s Change the World Competition.

“DHE is a great example of a student-led organization with a broad impact. As advisers, we provide guidance on safety and logistics and connect the students with subject matter expertise, but the mission and projects are defined, designed, and executed by the students,” says Thayer Assistant Dean Carrie Fraser, who provides DHE administrative advising in partnership with Professor Charles Sullivan, DHE’s faculty adviser.


Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering members Collin Chideme ’14 (left) and Wouter Zwart ’14 fine-tune an electricity-generating pico-hydro turbine in Banda, Rwanda last August. (photo courtesy of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering)

“DHE is run by undergraduates and has about 50 core members committed to bringing sustainable, affordable, technology-based solutions to communities in need,” DHE member Alison Polton-Simon ’14 explains.

Growing from a small chapter of Engineers Without Borders in 2003, it has matured into an independent entity involved in a series of programs with the award-winning Rwanda hydroelectric project topping the list.

The pico-hydro project, as small-scale hydropower is known, uses falling water to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Rwanda’s mountain streams are an excellent fit for this approach. Living far off the grid, villagers use batteries to power 12-volt household lights and small appliances. Charging these large batteries had required several days’ walk to charging stations. With two DHE local pico-hydro sites operational, more than 120 households now have lighting in their homes.

“Our greatest challenge is that we are only there for two months and then gone for 10,” Sumers says. “It is difficult to build long-lasting relationships with these communities and equipment maintenance can also be a problem. If something breaks, it could be months until it is repaired.” This summer the team established a relationship with engineers at Rwanda’s Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, creating an in-country contact in case something is in need of repair.

The project has been supported by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, and a collaboration with CARE International is expected to produce another hydropower site in the coming year.

The Dartmouth student organization also has an active presence in Kigoma, Tanzania. In a partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute and Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding and supported by a grant from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Foundation, DHE is working on a coffee husk cook stove.

The area, plagued by deforestation as residents harvest trees for fuel, is home to a population that suffers a high incidence of acute respiratory infections brought on by cook stove smoke. Residents currently use both wood and coffee husks—a parchment-like waste material from coffee bean processing. While plentiful, the husks produce a smoky fire. An efficient, clean-burning stove could help alleviate both deforestation and respiratory problems.

To date, two experimental stove designs have been implemented in the direction of reducing emissions while increasing temperature output. The latest DHE team effort has been the development of briquetting the husks to further improve their fuel efficiency.

“Once we perfect the model for the stove, we could export it to other communities,” says Sumers. “There is a lot of coffee being grown and  deforestation is definitely an issue in many of those regions.”

While the hydropower and coffee husk initiatives are the most high profile items on the DHE agenda, the membership also has water purification and wind power projects in their pipeline.

“Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering encourages students to apply their education to do good, reflecting one of the best and most unique aspects of Dartmouth’s culture,” says Polton-Simon.

Joseph Blumberg