Mechanical engineering undergrad Roger Morton undertook work experience with a difference, gaining knowledge on sustainable development through placements in Uganda and India.
Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is an international organisation that runs engineering and technology programmes to facilitate development in some of the poorest countries in the world.
The organisation has voluntary work experience placement programmes run by teams across the UK that provide opportunities for students to gain invaluable knowledge of sustainable development by sharing their skills with local populace and learning from partner organisations. In addition to developing a passion for humanitarian work, participants become more inspired about engineering, helping to create a new generation of engineers who can respond to global issues - and ultimately end up in the best and most challenging jobs.
The organisation has branches in most universities with members responsible for awareness projects, organising placements, fundraising and helping students explore careers in international development.
In 2009, mechanical engineering fresher Roger Morton attended a meeting held by a new EWB branch at Exeter University and was immediately taken with its ethos of contributing engineering knowledge to poverty-stricken communities.
“I signed up to their training weekend called So You Want To Be A Slumdog Millionaire. This was a role-playing activity where students acted as slum dwellers and experienced aid workers pretended to be slum lords, thieves and sweatshop bosses.”
Training in Uganda
Morton was so taken with this experience that in 2010 he also signed up for a month’s training with EWB in Uganda.
“We teamed up with an organisation called New Build Uganda to build rainwater harvesting tanks and composting toilets – and learned a lot about soft skills development, and how to cope with a different culture. It was my first time outside the UK. It was a humbling experience seeing how people with so little could give so much.”
An amazing opportunity
On returning to the UK and becoming president of EWB Exeter Morton spotted a particularly attractive placement.
“It was with SELCO Labs in the south of India who’d just started an R&D project for agricultural machinery. SELCO Labs is the non-profit side of the SELCO foundation – which is a for-profit company that donates products to villages working through banks via loan schemes – making it affordable for farmers.
The brief was to develop a paddy thresher – a small machine that would hit the grains of rice out of the grass. The idea was to have a working prototype for small-scale rice farmers in the area and although there was a market for the thresher it hadn’t yet taken off. We had to work out why.”
Taking a year out to work in India
Despite that there were 40 applications for the one position Morton figured that with summers spent working as a farmhand in the UK, his design capabilities and recent experience in Uganda he’d be in with a shot. And he was. Given the choice of a three or six month placement Morton opted for the latter – even though that meant taking a year out of university.
Part of his week’s intensive pre-departure training course was to explore his motivation for doing the placement.
“One of mine was to help people – I wanted to save the world.”
But inevitably, on arriving in India in October 2011, his notion of being the people’s savior was somewhat deflated.
Reality hits home
“When you’re in non-English speaking country you have to really get to the bottom of what people actually mean. For example, when we built the thresher the farmers said it wasn’t separating the rice properly from the stalk and asked for a fan to blow on it. Knowing that the farmers are always right I then had to figure out what they meant by ‘a fan’ – and explain all this to my translator.”
Morton finished designing the thresher in three weeks and sent it off to a workshop – which then took four months to make it. In the meantime he travelled up north to work with Innovation Centre for the Poor (ICP), a sister NGO of SELCO.
“I worked in a slum in Ahmedabad with a head-loader community and in a fish market where I had free rein to come up with ideas. Head-loaders carry packages down tall buildings - the women on their heads and the men on their shoulders - and transport them across the city. The women often suffer miscarriages because of the heavy work and risk attacks on the street because they have no free hands and nd the men have serious back and neck problems.
Trying to help
"I made friends with the loaders and gamely attempted to do their work - which gave me some idea of how arduous it is. So I tried to help them by designing an adapted backpack - an old rucksack with a specially welded frame that fitted to their backs. But this was not well received – I now understand that they may have been insulted because I’d come along and told them a better way of doing a job they’ve been doing for generations.”
Morton faced a similar problem in the fish market where vendors use ice blocks in bowls to keep fish cool. His solution was to design an insulated bowl to dramatically reduce the melting rate. But as the bowls were heavier and the preservation of ice wasn’t immediately apparent the vendors mostly shelved his invention. On the plus side ICP is actually now further developing the idea.
Do it for the challenge!
Until he restarts his MEng course in October Morton will be running a leadership development program for EWB UK – to train up branch leaders and students who will be venturing abroad this summer.
“I realise now that the reason I did this placement was for the challenge – not to save the world. Wherever you go you will face vastly different problems and finding ways to surmount them can only help in whatever you are going do next.
People think that because the competition is so great they are not going to get a placement so don’t bother trying. My advice is to get involved with your EWB branch, research what is available and go for it. Don’t lie to yourself about what placements would be good for you – be honest with yourself and that will come through in the interview. If that placement is right for you – you will get it – no matter how much you don’t know.”