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Experts have not cornered the market on good ideas. An innovative engineering program in Texas has been proving that college undergraduates can tackle and solve vexing challenges in providing health care in developing countries. NPR's Joe Palca has been exploring how inventions come to be as part of his new beat, Joe's Big Idea.
Today, he introduces us to two new engineers who are tapping the potential of bright young minds to change the world.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Rural hospitals in the developing world have lots of problems. Some are huge; lack of electricity, lack of staff, lack of supplies. But some problems are much smaller and can be overcome with a bit of ingenuity.
MARIA ODEN: We want to teach our students that they can solve these problems.
PALCA: Maria Oden is an engineering professor at Rice University in Houston. She runs a program designed to get students to first learn about the problems of rural hospitals, and then find solutions.
ODEN: These are not going to be MRI machines or CT machines.
PALCA: Rebecca Richards-Kortum is the chair of bioengineering at Rice and Oden's partner in this project.
REBECCA RICHARDS-KORTUM: These are going to be simple technologies that you can develop in the course of a semester or the course of a year.
PALCA: Maybe a simple system to measure drug dosage or a way to deliver the right amount of IV fluids. The students have to develop a prototype, but Maria Oden says some of these students will take their invention even further.
ODEN: Go into the field, test it, get feedback, return to Rice, redesign. Most of the time the first design doesn't work very well and so they redesign it until they get to a point where it's a product that can be deployed. That's the ultimate goal, for sure.
PALCA: Oden says once a team of undergraduates sinks its teeth into a project, it's hard to let go.
ODEN: We have teams who may have been in a class four semesters ago, and they are still working on this project - not because they're getting credit not because they're in a course, but because they want to solve this problem.
PALCA: One of the most successful projects has been something called a bubble C-PAP. It helps premature infants breathe by pushing a steam of air into their lungs. Richards-Kortum says a team of Rice students found some clever ways to make a bubble C-PAP that was affordable.
RICHARDS-KORTUM: One of the wonderful things about working with 18-year olds is that they're so creative. They don't have fixed ideas about what might not work. And so you get really crazy ideas. Like inside our bubble C-PAP machine there's aquarium pumps.
PALCA: Aquarium pumps? Well, why not. I mean, they're cheap and they worked. The students develop their inventions in something called the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen on the Rice campus. I recently went there for a visit, and Maria Oden showed me some the prototypes their students had made.
ODEN: This right here is the original C-PAP device.
PALCA: This looks like in one of the box...
ODEN: It's like a shoebox.
PALCA: ...yeah, exactly.
ODEN: It's in a plastic shoebox from Target.
PALCA: And some hoses coming out with some tubing and a fish tank pump.
ODEN: Two fish tank pumps.
PALCA: In case one breaks or to keep them going...
ODEN: No, you need two to get enough flow.
PALCA: Oden says they've tested their bubble C-PAP in rural hospitals in Malawi and now they're starting to deploy them at hospitals around that country. The device is snazzied up to look more professional but basically it's the same as the prototype - aquarium pumps and all. Richards-Kortum says it's a long slog to go from design to product to actually seeing something work, but it's worth it.
RICHARDS-KORTUM: It's sort of magic when you see it come together. It's the best part of our job.
PALCA: What was the most magical moment that you've had in the last year?
RICHARDS-KORTUM: Oh, that's easy.
PALCA: Richards-Kortum and Oden went to Malawi a while back with one of the students who had worked on bubble C-PAP design project. They visited one of the rural hospitals where they tested the bubble C-PAP device.
ODEN: And we went into the maternity ward, and a nurse came up to us.
PALCA: The nurse said, we used the bubble C-PAP on my baby, and it saved his life.
ODEN: She was able to go get her baby so that we could meet the baby, and the student was able to look and see a life that she had affected. And so for me, it was, you know, it just sort of sent chills all the way down my entire spine because I realized that while we're teaching students and we want them to leave here believing they can make a difference, this was the picture of a true difference being made.
PALCA: Oden and Richards-Kortum are hoping that once students learn how wonderful it feels to make a difference in the world, they'll be hooked. And at least some of those students will devote their professional lives to doing that. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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