James Madison University

first graduates logo About this series: This is the initial installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

How Much Effect Can JMU Students Have
On A Continent's Healthcare Future?

Imagine going to the hospital and finding no clean water, no sterile surfaces and no modern machines to measure your vitals. Now imagine walking five miles to get there.

That scenario, so foreign to Americans, is the reality for the people of Sub-Saharan Africa.

"In Africa, people struggle every day with things we take for granted," says Dan Wolfe ('12), an engineering student from Midlothian, Va.

Wolfe is part of Team Africa, a group of seven senior engineering students at James Madison University who are designing a solution that they hope will change the way health care is delivered in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are part of the inaugural class of engineers who will graduate from JMU next May.

As part of a two-year senior capstone project, Team Africa is creating a template for a sustainable health care clinic in Benin. When complete, the project—which the group estimates will take 10 years to complete—will be a model that can be replicated throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

One group member, Adib Amini ('12) from Fairfax, Va., who visited Benin last summer with faculty adviser and engineering professor, Brad Striebig, saw the problems first hand.

"I spent about nine weeks there learning what they did, learning their needs, visiting several health clinics. . . . The best way to describe them is the scene of a horror movie. The halls are run down. They equipment is really old. They did have the infrastructure. They did have some tools. They did have some technology, but nothing is integrated. It's a system that's fragmented," Amini says.

students working on project.

To meet this challenge, the students are approaching the problem holistically, a hallmark of JMU's new Department of Engineering, which first enrolled students in 2008 and is a general engineering program focused on sustainability.

"We look at problems based on four pillars of sustainability: technological, environmental, social and economic," Amini explains.

For instance, says Leah Haling, a senior from Arlington, Va.: "We picked 'earth block' for construction [of buildings]. It's sustainable, has no toxins, doesn't require a lot of energy and the materials are readily available and can be made on sight. We can teach Africans how to make the block and it will provide jobs. We can employ these people and they can use it further."

The group's clinic plan goes beyond construction, environment and economics, adds Erika Smith, a senior from Richmond, Va. Education—or social sustainability—she says, is an important concern for a health clinic.

"Our goal is to create a center where they can go to be educated about AIDS, for mothers with pregnancy issues . . . the goal is that it will decrease health problems throughout Africa."

A lack of clean, available water is one of many problems the students hope to solve in developing the sustainable health clinic.

the model rainwater catch system.

This semester students are completing and testing the prototype of a rainwater collection system for the clinic. By building the scale model in a basement on JMU's East Campus, "we're hoping we can determine how much water we can collect," says Wolfe. "By the end of the semester we will have our construction model complete and begin testing."

Power is another challenge the team is working to solve.

Solar energy is an obvious solution in rural Africa, where electric power is not widely available. "The solar radiance is very strong there," says Bryan Morrison, a senior from Landsdowne, Va., so the group has also examined how to employ solar energy to power the clinic.

Even in providing power, there is a human component to consider.

"The solar panels need to go on the roof," Amini says, "otherwise, they might be stolen."

Working as a team to complete the two-year project, the students have learned and used multiple facets of engineering, including civil, chemical, electrical, mechanical and environmental.

"Within our group, we have a diverse group with lots of different interests," says Wolfe. "It's prepared us well for the real world, when we get out into the job market."

Amini agrees: "We're learning to work with other team members to bring it all together. And we're looking at things holistically."

The scope of the health clinic is so large that it won't be finished when this first cadre of JMU engineers graduates next May. Already though, a group of sophomore and junior engineers have signed on to continue the work that Team Africa has begun.

"Someday," says Morrison, "the U.N. will be taking our template and stamping out clinics all over Africa."

Series At A Glance