Milwaukee School of Engineering

NCEES Engineering Education Award $25,000 winner

Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management Department

Project: Sustainable Improvements for Guatemalan Cardamom Spice Dryers


Students: Nicole Weise-Fujimoto, Ethan Schrag, Tanner Vaculik, Hazel Ringpis, Krista Vanderwerff, Jessica Ryan, Claire Vozel, Lucas Miller, Maia Heineck, Nathan Arrigoni, Anthony Grotjan, Rejoice Alibio, Sophia Meinshausen, William Jalocha, Dylan Powers, Nissa Larson, Jack Flanigan, Yisong Lin, Monique Laundry, Michaela Blume, Nathan Hengel, Riley Buhr, Kenny Holbrook, and Paul Weibul

Faculty: Michael Sracic, Ph.D.; Michael Sevier, Ph.D.; Michael Cook, Ph.D.; Prabhakar Venkateswaran, Ph.D.; Tammy Rice-Bailey, Ph.D.; Todd Davis, Ph.D.; Douglas Stahl, Ph.D.; Ann Perry-Witmer, Ph.D.; Deborah Jackman, Ph.D.; and Leah Newman, Ph.D.

Professional Engineers: Todd Davis, Ph.D., P.E.; Douglas Stahl, Ph.D., P.E.; Tatiana Moldonado (Guatemala); Ann Perry-Witmer, Ph.D., P.E.; Larry Paul (Guatemala); Russ Zick, P.E.; and Deborah Jackman, Ph.D., P.E.

Additional participants: Andres Chun, Denis Balion, Julio Grazioso, Camilo Cuc, Nelson Pacay, Kent Rausch, Juan Manual, Kata Ixcol, Judy Haselhoef, Joseph Pechstein, Jud Riggins, and Shana Davis, E.I.T.

Jury comments:

“The students provided an ingenious solution to an environmental issue.”

“How wonderful it is that such a simple, inexpensive solution could make such a difference to the environment. It is exciting that this can be implemented with a little effort and a small amount of materials, which should make it easy to convince the local people to implement this on a wide scale.”

“This project was very unique with a global impact. It had multidiscipline, non-faculty P.E. interaction, and resulted in an improved process that will be long-lasting.”

Todd M. Davis, Ph.D., P.E. is an Associate professor in the Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management Department at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

What value does a real-world project bring to the students?

While simulated academic projects have value, real-world projects provide a much richer educational experience for all involved. There is an intrinsic motivation in working on a solution which, if implemented, will have a positive impact in the lives of people and their communities. Working with an actual client allows the students to develop the valuable soft skills associated with the client-engineer relationship. A real-world project has the potential for the unexpected. While faculty can program “curveballs” into academic projects, real-world projects will inevitably contain the unexpected to which faculty, students, and professional mentors must address in a specified schedule and budget. Students gain experience both in observing how faculty and professional mentors respond and in being part of the response themselves.

How do you decide which projects to work on?

First and foremost, we work on projects which have been self-identified by local communities or other local associations as a priority. We do not presume a problem and impose a solution on a community but rather seek to work with communities in accomplishing their own goals. When that goal is beyond the community’s capacity to achieve with their own internal resources, they reach out for assistance. This ensures that the projects we undertake have substantial buy-in from the local community.

This particular project was part of an EWB-USA student chapter. All our projects originate from within a community and are supported by a local sponsoring non-profit organization or local government.  These projects are then vetted by the Guatemalan office staff of EWB-USA according to EWB-USA’s principles of development. We are generally involved in infrastructure projects, usually one per year, which vary according to what communities have requested.

This project, however, was presented to the chapter as the result of direct inquiry from two mechanical engineering students about any projects needing mechanical engineering expertise.

At approximately the same time, a collective of cardamom famers and processors in partnership with Heifer International, a local agricultural non-profit organization working in Guatemala with “indigenous farmers in climate smart agricultural practices…to enable local people to generate incomes and care for the forests,” had identified the need to improve the efficiency of cardamom dryers. They reached out to the Guatemalan office staff of EWB-USA for technical support.

It was clearly a pressing need, and the students agreed to take on the challenge even though the process for achieving the goal was unclear and not delineated for them.

How did this project prepare students for professional practice?

So many aspects of this project prepared students for professional practice. The open-ended nature of the goal, the trial-and-error process through which they discovered a viable solution, and finally testing and design optimization – all with varying levels of guidance at each step – were all invaluable experiences.

  • This project had a very general open-ended problem statement which provided a destination but no roadmap. This prepared the students to narrow down a problem into a manageable project.
  • Once they identified the heat exchanger as the main culprit of energy loss, they brainstormed many possible solutions, many of which were deemed not practical. This reinforced the reality that the engineering process is often built upon a series of failed or impractical ideas before arriving at the final solution.
  • The experience they gained from participating in the prototyping, on-site testing in country, and then optimizing their solution brought the entire experience full circle.
  • The students learned the value of being mentored and mentoring others.
  • They also realized there are times when one must engage in self-learning as they researched many topics not covered in coursework.
  • They developed project management skills and interpersonal team skills such as encouraging their teammates through the many frustrating setbacks encountered during the project.
  • They were confronted with the reality that engineers can have a significant impact on the health, safety, and welfare of the public. This project resulted in significant impacts on the economic well-being of those involved in the cardamom industry as well as significant environmental impacts in the reduction of CO2e emissions and deforestation.
  • They experienced firsthand the indispensable value of input from all stakeholders in all aspects of the process from problem identification, through design and development, and all the way to implementation of the engineered solution.
  • The students gained competency in working on a technical project in a cross-cultural multilingual international context.
  • They learned the value of appropriate technology and how to develop a technology that considers financial constraints, resource availability, and skill level of the end user.
  • Specifically, in the development context, they learned how a simple, inexpensive, and effective design has a better chance of replication in an international development project if the implementation, operation, and repairs or maintenance do not rely on foreign investment or involvement.

What advice do you have for other programs wanting to add similar collaborative projects to their curriculum?

If working on an international project, ensure that the project is requested by the community (or end user) and that they are actively involved throughout the entire process. Furthermore, ensure that curricular requirements (e.g., course outcomes, accreditation) do not dictate the nature of the project and inadvertently trump the needs of the community.

Nicole Weise-Fujimoto is an MSOE Alumni, Class of 2020 and was project manager and founder of the ME Team for MSOE-EWB.

What did you like best about participating in this project?

The diversity and uniqueness of this project really drew me in. As an engineer on this project, I had to fill many different roles, constantly moving from the 10,000-foot view of project management to the 1-inch view of detailed engineering analysis. I had to interact with so many other stakeholders in many different fields and in multiple languages. It was the best real-world experience an engineering student could ever get, and it also brought me so much fulfillment. This project led to many cool connections and opportunities including an internship in Guatemala with Engineers Without Borders.

What did you learn?

I learned the beauty and elegance of a simple design and how to engineer to empower, not impress. Even with a simple design, there are deep complexities that can go into understanding how that simple design works fundamentally or can be improved, especially when fluid dynamics is involved. I also learned a lot about the amazing country and people of Guatemala and the cardamom industry. Finally, I learned that I really love engineering when the work has a bigger purpose and positively impacts this world.

How did the participation of professional engineers improve the experience?

Our professional engineers were experts at asking questions that helped us work our way through theory to arrive at practical ideas, experiments, prototypes, and eventually, a solution. This led to the growth of both confidence and humility in our engineering abilities, including being able to think critically and ask great questions, just as our mentors modeled. Our mentors also taught us that curiosity is what keeps engineers young.

What do you think the engineers learned from working with students on this project?

Mentorship is definitely a skill that needs to be grown and formed, and our engineering mentors gained a lot of experience in our team’s collaborative environment. Providing guidance on a project in a different country to a bunch of students with minimal experience/knowledge is both challenging and rewarding, and the engineering mentors did an incredible job, learning a lot about cardamom dryers and manufacturing in Guatemala right alongside us.

Steve Crowe is the Guatemala Country Director of  Engineers Without Borders USA.

Why did you get involved with the project?

The problems caused by inefficient cardamom dryers are serious issues for people in north central Guatemala. I have been working on projects aimed at improving the quality of life for people in those areas for over ten years and have been looking at various aspects of cardamom drying for at least six years. For me, it was a no-brainer to get involved with this project because of its potential for creating great impact at a really low cost.

How did you assist the students in the project?

I provided the students with advice and technical guidance about the cardamom industry in Guatemala, as well as current cardamom drying technology and the metal fabrication industry. I helped coordinate the fieldwork the students did and went along on some of the first tests done on real functioning dryers.

What did you learn from working with the students?

The swirler idea was a really elegant, low-cost way to improve the existing technology. It took the students a while to land on the swirler idea, but once they did it worked great. As they were working through other ideas, they spent time considering some that from my point of view obviously wouldn’t work. But I learned that they had to go through all those ideas, including some I knew wouldn’t work, to come upon a new idea that I never would have thought of.

What did you want students to learn from working with you?

I hope they learned something about working with Guatemalan communities on projects involving novel technologies like how to listen to people who come from completely different backgrounds than they do, how to explain themselves effectively, and how to be patient and persistent as the project unfolds.

Jud Riggins is an Engineer with the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

Why did you get involved with the project?

One of my interns from a previous job asked me to support with some guidance on the project, and when I found out what it was about (reducing deforestation in Guatemala) I was more than happy to help. After a very fun and successful first year, I have returned for the last few. In general, I’m very passionate about engineering solutions to real problems and using our skills to make the world a better place.

How did you assist the students in the project?

Students, especially underclassmen, lack the practical knowledge of what engineering really is: solving problems by being creative and using the tools that they’re learning in their classes to help them come to and/or justify solutions. College can get very droll and easy to lose sight of why they initially got interested in the field. I do my best to keep the passion alive in them by passing what I’ve learned on to them. I’ve grown to love seeing the fire reignite in students’ eyes when they’re reminded of why they got into this field in the first place.

What did you learn from working with the students?

It reminded me that engineering isn’t about the math and physics that you learn in classes. It’s the methodology, creativity, and continuously improving your engineering intuition or “gut check” that makes a good engineer.

What did you want students to learn from working with you?

That anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I try to help them connect what they’re learning in school to the problems they’re trying to solve. In my opinion it’s not always about the numbers, graphs, or simulations. I remember being in college and letting the pressure to get the exact right answer blind me to the bigger picture. In real life there is no “perfect”, but we can try to engineer something as close to it as we can with clearly defined requirements. I hope that I’ve been able to pass that onto all the students/interns I mentor.