A team of Hopkins students were awarded 2nd place at the Odebrecht Awards for Sustainable Development this past Monday. The team, consisting of Jay Choi, Victor Oh and Sang Cho, travelled to Houston along with their faculty advisor, Professor Erica Schoenberger, to receive their award and a $15,000 prize.
A team from Rice University took the first place slot, receiving a prize of $40,000, and a team from North Carolina State University placed third, receiving a prize of $10,000.
Odebrecht is a multinational engineering and construction company based in Brazil that is committed to sustainable development. The company sponsors annual competitions among undergraduate students to uncover innovations in sustainable technology. The competition began in 2008 in Brazil, and has expanded to countries such as Panama, Angola, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina and the Dominican Republic.
The competition this year marked the first Odebrecht Award awarded in the U.S., and it drew in applicants from 173 universities, including Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The Hopkins team project, called Pegasus (Paper for education, growth, and sustainability) addressed the problem of insufficient school supplies in rural Africa. The students designed a machine that uses agricultural waste and produces paper, mixing traditional Korean papermaking methodology with modern materials and technology.
The design was initially created for a final project in their Introduction to Engineering for Sustainable Development class, taught by Professor Schoenberger. The assignment was for them to develop a product specifically tailored for poor communities in the world. Following a strong suggestion from Professor Schoenberger, the team submitted their design to the Odebrecht competition.
“I think we are all pretty surprised that we got so far,” Oh said.
A month before the final results were revealed, a shortlist of 15 finalists was released.
“When we made the shortlist, we were really surprised about getting that far. We were actually just happy with that,” Oh said.
At the award ceremony, only the top three finalists were in attendance. The ceremony was held at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, with speakers including Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop per Child, as well as Annaise Parker, Mayor of the city of Houston. But the focus of the event were the award recipients.
“It was kind of like being a little celebrity, with all these people taking photographs,” Schoenberger said.
The team from Rice University won first prize for their design of a connected chain of manmade islands off the coast of Brazil to sustain its offshore drilling ventures. In third place, came a team from North Carolina State University with a design of how to extract food oils from cardboard, making widely used materials such as pizza boxes, recyclable.
To the Hopkins students who received the award, the significance of the event went beyond the prize. For Cho, the award ceremony assured him that there is a forum for his ideas to be recognized.
“We got to meet a lot of people, all kinds of people: reporters, media, and CEOs from a ton of different companies. It was a really good experience to realize that for us, as students, coming up with an idea can actually make a difference. And that these people appreciate, and are all very interested in education,” Cho said.
As for the next steps in bringing their design to reality, the team of Hopkins students is planning on making the prototype during winter break. Furthermore, the team is thinking about going on a trip to Africa to analyze how to implement their prototype.
In creating their design, the team of Hopkins students had to think beyond their normal engineering scope.
“We had to do a lot of research. A lot of it was technical, but more of it was social. We had to learn about what kind of community we are targeting, what kind of needs they have, what kind of resources they have,” Cho said.
This interdisciplinary thinking is largely the goal of Professor Schoenberger in her Introduction to Engineering for Sustainable Development class. The class brings in students from a diverse array of majors, ranging from Public Health to Biomedical Engineering, to develop methods of social analyses to support their engineering endeavors.
“This class is really meant to try to help engineers read the social landscape that they are operating, to figure out who to ask questions of and how to interpret the answers, and to understand what people really want,” Schoenberger said.
In their award winning design, Choi, Oh, and Cho were able to do just that.