For most tourists, a visit to the South American Andes wouldn’t be complete without a journey to Peru’s prized Machu Picchu. The former home of the innovative Incas, Machu Picchu is a stunning sight to behold, what with its ancient circular terraces built for farming and breathtaking mountainous views. For University of St. Thomas engineering students the sight is also an incredible teaching moment, one that deeply connects them to the farmers who still steward the land today.
Michael Miller ’20, a mechanical engineering graduate, remembers those breathtaking views fondly, and he emphasizes that at nearly 10,000 feet, they truly are breathtaking. Miller spent the summer of 2019 embedded in the Sacred Valley as part of the School of Engineering Senior Design Clinic, tackling a tricky problem alongside fellow St. Thomas students and the farmers of the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development.
At the root of the problem: quinoa. For thousands of years quinoa has been cultivated by Andean farmers, but recently, the plant’s popularity has skyrocketed around the globe. While the increased demand has been more than welcome, overplanting can decimate the nutrient rich soil used to grow it. Miller and his team were tasked with creating a chipper of sorts that could break down the plant’s long, tall stalks and return those nutrients to the soil.
“This wasn’t just some class. And it wasn’t just a check mark for credits,” Miller said. “We were able to really live amongst the people and work alongside them, speak to them about what kind of innovation we could provide, and design something of impact.”
To make a successful chipper, Miller’s team took many different issues into consideration, from the uneven mountainous terrain to manufacturing materials readily available in rural Peru. At the end of the day, Miller says understanding and connecting with his Andean clients was key.
“It takes a lot of vulnerability to truly understand somebody and design something they need,” Miller said. “Yes, it also takes technical skills that we learned at St. Thomas, but here we learned what that connection could create, and we watched it materialize right in front of us.”
Forty-five percent of St. Thomas engineering students study abroad, a number that greatly outpaces most other educational institutions. Boosting interest is an impressive list of life-changing global experiences, curated for their potential to put students in the heart of hands-on learning.
The Senior Design Clinic, which regularly sends teams to Peru and Jordan, is just one example. The Engineers for World Health program sends students to repair hospital equipment in countries like Rwanda, Tanzania and Guatemala. And students can spend an entire year in Germany, earning a dual German and engineering degree.
“Exposing students firsthand to a culture that is different than their own, immersing them in it, having them design something for people different than themselves, it both addresses the engineering side of things, but also the whole person aspect of embracing different cultures and people,” said Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and adviser for many of the Peru teams.
Nelson-Cheeseman points out that simply taking a class abroad is not the motivation behind these programs. Instead, leaders work to create partnerships that can truly facilitate life-changing experiences – many of which have taken years of development as staff search for the right opportunities to enable immersive learning.
“Finding the right partner on the ground in those countries is key,” Nelson-Cheeseman said. “We also have to make sure we are not spreading ourselves too thin, making sure that the experiences that we are offering have the impact and serve the mission we’re out to achieve.”
The mission to serve the farmers of the Andes has turned into growing career aspirations for St. Thomas alumnus Michael Miller, who is now in graduate school at Colorado School of Mines preparing for a career in orthopedics and medical device design.
“There’s a lot of overlap with the kind of empathic engineering I experienced in the Sacred Valley and the art of creating medical devices,” Miller said. “It’s simple, I’m making something for somebody, and I want my device to really improve their quality of life.”
At the end of the day, that makes Professor Nelson-Cheeseman proud.
“These experiences definitely make them a much better engineer,” Nelson-Cheeseman said. “But it also extends beyond. And many of them can integrate what they learned, especially that understanding and appreciation for the complexities of the world, into their life back here in Minnesota.”
This story is featured in the spring 2023 issue of St. Thomas Engineer.