Just south of the heart of Dayton lies FoodBank, Inc., a non-profit organization placed to relieve hunger within the area. Among the organization’s many volunteers is graduate student Nivedita Penugonda ’18.
Through a partnership between Semester of Service and the Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service (ETHOS), Penugonda has the opportunity to spend the summer volunteering. Working as an application developer, Penugonda has three specific ongoing projects that she will work on throughout the summer.
Using the skills she has gained while pursuing her master’s degree in computer science, Penugonda has been working to develop a mobile application for Android that will assist the organization once their proposed drive thru is set up. In addition to the mobile app, Penugonda is improvising a web application that assists in the verification of key shoppers, and lastly, she is working to making the FoodBank Inc., database more accessible.
Penugonda is no stranger to service work, as she worked in many service groups while at home in India. However, she is particularly excited for this opportunity because it allows her to develop her technical skills. After receiving a piece of mail for this program that advertised a technical immersion, Penugonda decided to go for it.
“I am thoroughly enjoying doing it now,” Penugonda said. “Seriously, it’s God’s grace that I got a wonderful opportunity.”
Penugonda appreciates the opportunity the job is giving her to hone her computer skills on a practical platform where she can work on a real project and face the difficulties in actually implementing it.
In addition to technical experience, Penugonda said she has gained communication skills, knowledge about different communities and cultures, and a deeper understanding for the inner-workings of non-profit organizations.
From a St. Joseph medal and the promise of $12,000, great things continue to grow. Building on faith and opportunity, the university founded on that promise is helping to create a school in Malawi, Africa. It will be a hub for experiential learning and research initiatives, supporting development in Malawi as well as the futures of the UD students who will serve there.
Amidst the winding, rugged dirt roads and atop the rolling green hillside, brick and mortar buildings have taken shape.
The sturdy man-made walls are in sharp contrast to the natural beauty, with the Great African Rift Valley and Lake Malawi both in view. It won’t be long before students and teachers walk among the classroom buildings and dormitories of the Wasambo High School campus. But it’s not the physical structures that will have the greatest impact; it’s what the buildings represent — opportunity.
“People in Malawi value education above almost everything else,” said Matt Maroon ’06, founder of Determined to Develop, a Karonga-based nongovernmental organization in Malawi. “I’ve seen mothers sacrifice food in order to pay school tuition for their children. I’ve seen families sell their last goat to send their promising son to the first term of high school, not knowing at all where they will get the money for the second term, let alone the following three years.”
Maroon has found the common theme in this land-locked African nation to be one that resonates more than 8,000 miles away on the campus of the University of Dayton, where students, faculty and alumni have worked with Maroon’s organization to make the school a reality for Malawian children.
“Faith — it’s people’s faith that tomorrow will be a brighter day with hard work, persistence and an education,” said Maroon, who first visited Malawi in 2006 during a year of service with the Society of Mary. “It’s the idea that one’s current condition need not assign them a set path in life, but that they have the choice if only given the opportunity to find the road toward prosperity. And that education is the surest way to lift one’s self to a state where one can comfortably, and humbly, take care of a family.”
It’s a faith reinforced by Flyer research, volunteerism and fundraising, from students and faculty in engineering, education, arts and sciences, and business. It is a faith that will also be passed on to future UD students, who will benefit from having the school as an experiential learning base. Wasambo High School, when it opens Sept. 1, 2017, will showcase the best of the University’s transdisciplinary, liberal arts education in the Marianist spirit of partner-based community building.
“UD is taking the exact opposite approach of an ivory tower, instead realizing that its talents and treasure can make a concrete and lasting impact on education in a global context — and that’s happening on the ground in Africa,” Maroon said. “This is the Marianist approach, to be around the table with the people whom we serve, partners in development and uplifting one another along the way. It’s intentional. It’s grounded in reality, and it’s faithful.”
A great need
The Society of Mary, UD’s founding order, is deeply rooted in Malawi, opening Nkhata Bay Secondary School in the early 1960s and, shortly thereafter, operating Chaminade Secondary School — which still educates students today — in Karonga. The Marianist sisters this year will open their own mission in Malawi and focus on teaching.
The population statistics of Malawi underscore the need for educational institutions: Close to 47 percent of the population is 14 years old or younger, and another 20 percent is between 15 and 24. The median age in Malawi — a country with an estimated 976,300 people living with AIDS or HIV — is just 16 ½ years old. According to Maroon, there are significant hurdles in the Malawian education system, including access to high school and quality education.
“Only about 18 percent of eighth-grade graduates, students in our area who have finished primary school, are able to continue on to high school because of capacity,” Maroon said. “There are simply not enough schools or room at the existing schools.”
Standard Malawian curriculum has not traditionally emphasized enrichment and experiential learning.
“We want to take the Malawian model — based off the British system — and infuse it with some of the best practices internationally,” Maroon said.
UD Department of Teacher Education Chair Connie Bowman is excited about her department’s involvement at Wasambo. Faculty and students will assist in professional development for teachers in Malawi, focusing on student-centered instruction and active engagement for learning, as well as curriculum development and recruitment.
“Many of our graduates are teaching in foreign countries,” Bowman said, “and we believe Malawi will be an excellent place for them to engage in teaching and infuse their training in best practices through the educational field.”
The first phase — which is currently under construction — is a boys’ high school, set up in an English boarding school style. The long-term plan includes a girls’ high school and a technical college.
The desired outcomes for Wasambo High School are threefold: provide a world-class education for the students; create a teacher training program that enables instructors to learn and implement best practices; and create a “living classroom” as part of the UD partnership where UD students and faculty can analyze challenges and work with Malawians to develop solutions.
The new school is located in Sangilo Village, Chilumba area in the Karonga District. This district is several hundred square miles with a population of about 60,000. Students will come from all around Malawi with an emphasis on offering positions and scholarships to local students. The impact of the school, however, extends well beyond the region.
“This is a benefit to the nation,” said Scotch Kondowe, Karonga District education manager. “In line with Malawi’s development strategies, strengthening secondary education is a top priority. To have a partnership with Determined to Develop and the University of Dayton is a welcome concept, and we are glad that outside stakeholders are taking interest in supporting government through the development of secondary education.”
While students will soon experience the immediate benefits of attending the new school, long-term benefits are expected for generations to come.
“Lack of education is a barrier to development,” said Senior Chief Wasambo (pictured left), the traditional authority and custodian of all land and culture in the region. “Having the school will change lives and opportunities, from poverty to prosperity, and it will transform the community for the better long term.”
The school, not coincidentally, is named in the chief’s honor, as it was he who allocated the 120 acres of land to Maroon in 2013 to establish the campus. The cost? Anyone familiar with the story of Father Leo Meyer and the purchase of the property on which the University of Dayton now stands will find the answer remarkable. Maroon paid about $12,000 to compensate a few local farmers for the land. In 1850, Father Meyer purchased 120 acres from John Stuart for the promise of $12,000 and a medal of St. Joseph as collateral. Maroon, likewise, presented Chief Wasambo with a St. Joseph medal.
Each entering class will consist of 80 boys from more than 50 elementary schools in the area. Some students at the all-boys boarding school will pay tuition, while others will receive scholarships. Looking forward, Wasambo will have 300-plus students onsite in four years.
“The community can see that there are not enough schools in our area,” said Alick Zika Mkandawire, a community liaison officer. “The schools we do have don’t have good learning materials and don’t have enough teachers. The new school will provide these, and the community is excited for good things to come.”
The Marianist way
Maroon’s connections with the University of Dayton have evolved and benefitted both the Malawians and UD students.
Students have worked on issues of human rights in Malawi with Determined to Develop since 2010. Since 2011, the School of Engineering’s ETHOS program has worked with Malawians on projects from renewable technology to potable water. The political science department initiated the Malawi Research Practicum on Rights and Development in 2013. The practicum, now housed in the Human Rights Center, pairs UD students with Malawian university students in-country to tackle development questions that give Determined to Develop insight into how it can best serve the community.
“It’s amazing when we have our UD students here, as they can dig into an issue and, with their Malawian counterparts, help us understand where we should focus our efforts,” Maroon said. “Their research gives credibility to our mission and influences the direction we take our programming.”
UD student research has been broad in scope, ranging from assessing community access to clean water to an assessment of gender-based violence against girls. From an examination of health systems to agricultural studies, the students work hand-in-hand with their Malawian counterparts.
“UD’s partnership with Determined to Develop and the people of Sangilo Village has grown organically over the years and has really been defined by the priorities and vision of our Malawian partners,” said Jason Pierce, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s heartening to see the collaborative spirit that has emerged on campus and with our partners. Folks just get it and are eager to play a role.”
Collaboration has translated to action, and there’s no better example than Wasambo High School. UD practicum students have examined local challenges in access and quality of secondary school education. ETHOS students conducted land surveys and are helping with plans and construction. Teacher education faculty and students are working on curriculum and teacher training.
“In my mind, the Wasambo project vividly illustrates the capacity of UD as a comprehensive university, one that leverages students and faculty from engineering, education, business, and arts and sciences to find localized solutions to global challenges,” said Pierce, who as former chair of the political science department initiated the Malawi practicum.
More than an education
‘‘I’m happy because, now, there is an opportunity for my children to go to a good quality school,” Phiri said. “Teachers coming from outside Malawi will be able to help my children learn things like English and other skills quicker. If my children learn fast they can get good jobs, which will help our family lots in the future.”
Moses Mulungu, a local bricklayer and father, anticipates that his children will, one day, travel beyond Malawi thanks to Wasambo High School.
“They will only be able to do this by get-ting a good education and learning to read road signs and other important life skills,” Mulungu said.
While the parents are hopeful, the excitement of the students who may some day call Wasambo home builds with each passing day as the campus takes shape.
Since they broke ground in September 2016, much progress has been made on the physical facilities. The garage and storehouse are complete. The foundations for the head teacher’s house, boarding master’s house and volunteer teacher’s house are also complete. Maroon said building is expected to move quickly once the water system is in place. The water tower — which will hold four plastic 5,000-liter tanks for the gravity-fed water system — has been finished, as has the drilling for the three onsite wells.
Computer and multimedia labs will be among the facilities in the classroom blocks, and space has been reserved for a small outdoor amphitheater.
“My heart is pounding with excitement and nervousness,” said James Mayni, 14 (pictured left), who is looking forward to improving his English through the teaching of native English speakers. “I have always wanted to go to a boarding school, and this could be my dream come true. I will keep hoping that my next chapter of my life at Wasambo High School awaits.”
Lowani Chirwa, 14, is also hopeful that he will be in the initial class of students admitted to Wasambo. His goal is to become one of the most educated people in his village and to fine-tune his English, as Wasambo will be an English-speaking campus.
“I believe that I will be able to learn higher reasoning skills, since the teachers will be highly educated,” Chirwa said. “I am looking forward to becoming a good, fluent English speaker.”
Rick Pfleger, a 1977 UD graduate, has been on board since the beginning of Maroon’s development work in Malawi in 2008. He and his wife, Claire Tierney Pfleger ’78, met Maroon when he was a UD student living near their daughter, Lindsay Pfleger ’06.
“When Matt first decided he wanted to stay in Malawi, we wanted to help him financially,” Rick Pfleger said. “His goal was to start an orphanage for children who had lost their parents to AIDS. At the time, we thought if he got 10 to 15 orphans under roof, it would be a home run. He now has 45-plus orphans in dormitories, four nurseries and preschools, and serves more than 500,000 meals a year in the community.
“I never envisioned he would stay this long, much less have the incredible impact he has had in Chilumba. Matt has become a fixture in the community, even to the point where the village chiefs made him an honorary member of their group,” Pfleger said.
Maroon brings two or three young members of the community to Chicago annually to meet the Pflegers.
“From the very beginning, we have been amazed by the spirit and optimism of these children,” Pfleger said. “When they share their stories with us, it enthuses us even more to continue our annual support. They are incredibly sincere, hopeful and grateful.
“Determined to Develop is certainly one of the most encouraging and fulfilling projects we have ever been involved with. We could not be more proud of Matt and what he has accomplished in the Marianist spirit.”
The Pflegers’ contribution to UD’s experiential-learning mission in Malawi has helped make Wasambo a reality. The wider UD community has also contributed, including a $10,000 fundraising initiative in 2014 by the University of Dayton student chapter of Determined to Develop.
“The Pflegers’ faith in UD, Determined to Develop and the Sangilo Village is inspiring.” Pierce said. “I am profoundly grateful for their support of this project and for seeing early on the impact the partnership could have in the community and the life-altering experiential learning opportunities it provides our students.” Pierce added that fundraising continues for future experiential learning opportunities for UD students.
While Wasambo will be life changing for the young people who attend school there, the experience of working in Malawi has also been life changing for those who have shared their time and talents with the people of the region.
“One of the most meaningful things I have learned from my time in Malawi is that no matter who you are you can probably help someone, know someone that can help, or you have the resources to learn how,” said Rob Greene (pictured left in red T-shirt, with members of the planning and work crew, including Matt Maroon, far right), an ETHOS graduate student currently working on the Wasambo project. “Being in Malawi has also made me rethink relationships and truly value them. Of course making friends halfway around the world and then leaving is one difficult aspect, but you could sit down with someone and immediately know 100 ways that you are different, but all you need is one similarity, one point to connect. Surprisingly you’ll find that not only are you not that different, but you can probably help each other.”
Greene — who is working toward a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus in environmental engineering — has been working as a project manager onsite and with Maroon on future construction plans.
“At times, it seems like ETHOS has only complicated my plans, but now I understand that I don’t only have an opportunity but also a degree of responsibility to act to better benefit my community and greater world community,” Greene said.
Department of Political Science Chair Grant Neeley has seen firsthand the impact the work in Malawi has had on the practicum students.
“It’s a tremendous learning experience and, in some cases, it most definitely shapes their career plans,” Neeley said. “But, regardless of their career path, this experience equips them with a greater understanding of how to work in a community setting. They gain a respect for others and their opinions and an ability to work through challenges, and that’s incredibly valuable because no matter where they go, they will be in a community.”
“It’s a reflection of the commitment and passion of the community in Malawi, Matt, and UD,” he said. “It’s exciting to see our faculty and students engage in work that resonates so deeply with the Marianist mission.”
Pierce anticipates University of Dayton involvement with Wasambo and in Malawi well into the future.
That’s music to Maroon’s ears.
“The longer I am here in Africa, the more I realize that people have the same goals, no matter their culture or differences,” Maroon said. “We all want to push ourselves forward and we want to take care of our families. We all have the same motivations; to be happy, healthy, useful, fulfilled, valued and loved. This school will allow that impact to multiply the current work that we are doing. It will be a transformational force for families that will ripple from each person who passes through. We are transforming a society and are building another pathway to prosperity. How exciting is that?”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
In 1998, the College of Arts and Sciences talked of sowing the seeds for human rights professionals who could collaboratively transform conversations and communities around the world. Today, those alumni serve in seven countries and numerous organizations dedicated to bettering the human condition. Here’s a look at where some alumni of the 2014 Malawi Research Practicum on Rights and Development, featured in the Winter 2014-15 UD Magazine, are today thanks to a UD education that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Alyssa Bovell ’14
Associate director of Project Partnerships IPM (International Partners in Mission)
“The interrelated challenges that impede the social, economic and political empowerment of women inspired me to pursue a human rights-based career in development. Women’s economic agency as a force of global poverty reduction has become an issue of international importance that I’ve become passionate about. [The practicum] has led to my current position at an international nonprofit that is focused on supporting women with equal access to resources and services to transform and sustain their communities.”
Jed Gerlach ’15
International programs assistant, Plan International USA
“It was great to be part of [Determined to Develop], a grassroots organization that was doing such great work with the resources given to them — an organization that not only helped people, but empowered them. To see that, as a student, had a great impact on me: on where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.”
Jason Hayes ’15
International program coordinator, Operation Smile
“You can study these things in a classroom and read every textbook out there but, at the end of the day, it’s just not the same. It doesn’t have an emotional effect until you get there and you see, firsthand, what the realities are. It was huge for me. I would highly recommend fieldwork. It affirmed for me the work I wanted to do.”
Andrew Lightner ’16
London School of Economics
“[The Malawi practicum] introduced me to wonderful people, fascinating research and exciting future opportunities. I have difficulty describing its impact, as I cannot recognize my worldview, experience at UD or current career trajectory without the practicum. I am currently studying international development and economics and aim to continue research in international and economic issues. The values and relationships Determined to Develop helped me form will continue to drive my career and non-career decisions.”
From a small country in West Africa, Tchamie Thierry Kadja, S.M. is a man with big goals and even bigger success.
Kadja graduated May 7 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology from the University of Dayton and was the recipient of both the L. Duke Golden Award of Excellence to the Outstanding Senior in Engineering Technology, which recognizes hard work, dedication and academic success, and the Richard R. Hazen Award of Excellence to the Outstanding Graduate of the Electrical Engineering Technology Program.
“Since my younger age, I have always been committed to my academics,” Kadja said. “So for me, it is a recompense of all of the hard work that I have been through.”
Though his hard work and dedication allowed him to achieve these prestigious awards, Kadja said he couldn’t have done it without the support of the UD community.
“With the support I’ve received from the brothers, the faculty and the students, I was able to manage everything,” Kadja said.
Kadja lives in community with Marianist brothers at 100 Chambers St., and credited the religious life for contributing to his success. The brothers have a very structured lifestyle, in which Kadja was able to compartmentalize his time spent in prayer, community and study. Additionally, the encouragement Kadja received from his brothers allowed him to feel safe and at home.
“Especially at the beginning when you don’t know anyone, your reference is your community,” Kadja said. “When you get back home in your community, you feel safe, home, protected somehow from the outside world. They gave me that shelter.”
Originally from Togo, Kadja graduated from Collège Chaminade Kara and was excited to continue his education within the Marianist community at UD. He spent time studying math at Molloy College in Long Island, New York before coming to the University of Dayton, and decided he wanted to pursue something more practical than theoretical, leading him to choose engineering.
Kadja’s favorite part about studying engineering at UD is the diversity and community spirit. Through the School of Engineering, he met students from places all over the world.
“They have given me some of their own taste of what engineering is,” Kadja said. “When you have teamwork, people approach things differently depending on where they’re from. So I benefited from this community.”
Kadja will pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at UD in the fall. He hopes to one day take his skills back to Togo where technology is not as advanced and help his community.
Last August, Faith Carver received her master’s in chemical engineering and switched her focus from Dayton to Mars. Her year of working as a graduate student researcher at the UD Research Institute under Senior Research Scientist Douglas Hansen helped Carver land a position in the fuel processing unit of Los Alamos National Laboratory. A UD professor first introduced Carver to the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator, a long-lived power system to provide electricity and heat to spacecraft. Los Alamos is the first step in a chain of laboratories that are creating fuel from plutonium-238 to power the Mars 2020 rover into infinity and beyond.
How did you learn you got the job?
I got a call right before my last final. They said, “You can accept it right now if you wish,” and I said, “Well, yes, I do! And I have a final in 20 minutes, so thank you!”
Was it a hard decision for you to move to New Mexico?
I had interviews and different offers, but this was the ideal job for me. I love working with alternative energy, I love electro-chemistry — this is a little bit of both — and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s hard to be away, but I absolutely love it.
Two members of the UD family — your former professor Dan Kramer and UDRI research scientist Chad Barklay — said they created a “survival handbook” to give to alumni headed to Los Alamos; I hear there are five alumni there now.
Yes, and I very much enjoyed it. The handbook ranged from how Los Alamos operates to where to live and fun facts. It made me feel a little more welcome. UD follows you everywhere and it’s great.
Describe your workplace.
I work in a secured area and I’m still waiting for my security clearance, so I’m escorted in. The people I work with include other engineers, doctors, contractors — you name it, they’re here. They come from all over the world to work here. We have our nice work stations right behind the fence of the plutonium facility and I’m around the greatest minds in the country — it’s unbelievable.
What about your job makes you go “wow”?
It’s amazing to look at something and think, “That’s going to space; that will be on Mars in a few years.” It’s incredible, it’s surreal and I want to be actively involved in that process.
What is it like being part of the new generation of researchers to contribute to the plutonium-238 project?
It’s exciting because there are not very many people who do this job. It’s kind of intimidating to be on it because there are people working at the lab who have been doing this for 20 years and they worked on Cassini or New Horizons, and now their projects are in outer space and on Mars. But, it’s also very humbling. You realize they are extremely experienced and you should try to learn everything you can from them.
What is your favorite part of your work?
Beyond the fact that I get to work on things that are going to space, we also work with labs all over the nation — NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UDRI. I love it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
OUT OF THIS WORLD
Since 2010, students have filled 1,592 positions working on sponsored research at the UD Research Institute. In its 60-year history, UDRI has employed approximately 13,000 students. Does that include you? If so, send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two University of Dayton graduate students received $50,000 each to work in a U.S. Department of Energy program with researchers at Emerson’s Helix Innovation Center on the University of Dayton campus.
Kefan Huang, in the renewable and clean energy program, is focused on enhancing Department of Energy software to better distribute heating, ventilation and air conditioning loads in light commercial buildings and residences using renewable energy power systems. Optimizing energy loads in real time will reduce energy costs.
Electrical engineering student Ashish Gogia is attempting to achieve a zero-energy smart home with green technologies and storage and energy management systems.
Both are using The Helix as a laboratory for their work in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.
The Building Technologies Office works with universities through the Building-Grid Integration Research and Development Innovators Program to improve the efficiency of buildings and increase renewable energy generation, leading to more efficient buildings and cleaner generation of electricity.
“This is yet another example of the University’s partnership with Emerson providing a real-world laboratory for our students and helping secure funding like this to continue their work,” said Kevin Hallinan, a professor in the University’s renewable and clean energy master’s program who is overseeing the students’ projects.
The University of Dayton School of Engineering graduate programs are ranked 65th nationally — tied with Brown University and ahead of schools like the University of North Carolina, Syracuse University and the Rochester Institute of Technology — according to U.S. News & World Report. The University ranks second among Catholic universities and third in Ohio.
There are deserts in Ohio. And Karlos Marshall plans on putting an end to them.
In 2015, the academic development coordinator for ArtStreet and Institute for Arts Nexus founded the non-profit The Conscious Connect, Inc. with hopes of ending book deserts in Ohio.
The Conscious Connect’s website defines a book desert, as “a geographical area that lacks the access and/or resources to high-quality, affordable, and culturally relevant and responsive print books.”
With this definition in mind and a goal to end book deserts in area neighborhoods, the grassroots’ first initiative, “The Root,” placed culturally relevant books in 20 urban Ohio barbershops and beauty salons where children could read while they waited.
Marshall said that a staple of the program is making sure the books are culturally relevant, having either a black or brown main character, or by being written by a black or brown author. He emphasized: “Children are already being exposed to characters that do not look like them and people have a preconceived notion that the black or brown children can’t read or don’t want to, but in reality, they don’t have books or characters they can relate to.”
And soon, Marshall’s goal grew.
“We want to make literature available at every corner of the community,” Marshall said.
Now, The Conscious Connect is holding a drive for 15,000 books to pilot its next initiative – “Little Libraries” in west Dayton neighborhoods. Holding about 20-30 books in unlikely places, the libraries come disguised as bird houses.
Partnered with The University Libraries Diversity & Inclusion Committee, donations are flooding in, while student engineers-in-training work on designing the “bird house” styled library structures in professor Beth Hart’s Engineering Innovation classes.
“I would love for my students to figure out how engineering isn’t just about technical things,” Hart said. “It’s about solving a problem that can make a big difference on many many levels.”
The libraries are projected to be implemented in spring or summer 2017, and afterward, there are endless opportunities for what is next for The Conscious Connect.
“In the West we think of education as a brick and mortar structure,” Marshall said. “But all around the world education is happening outside of the classroom . . . We are redefining what is education and where you can access it.”
During Jonathan Dekar’s freshman year, a woman approached the School of Engineering with a question: Could something be done to improve mealtimes for her daughter, whose disability limited her motion and required a caregiver’s assistance?
This wasn’t the mechanical engineering major’s first exposure to this problem. Through his grandfather’s diagnosis with a degenerative disease, he had witnessed the challenges that independent eating posed for some individuals.
“It was a basic human need gone unfulfilled — you have to eat to stay alive,” said Dekar, who graduated in 2011. “This wasn’t just another engineering project, getting food from point A to point B. I wanted it to be emotionally empowering and inspiring.”
Through four years of technical coursework, prototyping and researching the market, Obi was born.
Obi is a tabletop device with an automated spoon, robotic arm and a four-course compartmentalized plate that moves with practiced precision.
After graduation, Dekar shifted his full attention into making this product, learning additional skills in finance management and regulatory compliance.
“An engineering education is a ‘license to learn,’ and with an engineering mindset you can learn to do just about anything. It’s a toolkit,” he said.
Formally launched in July 2016, Obi has already garnered accolades. It won the 54th annual R&D 100 awards in the category “mechanical and materials,” as sponsored by R&D magazine. It was also a finalist in the 2016 International Design Excellence Awards.
The engineering entrepreneur feels confident in the mission his company has undertaken — to continually improve the quality of life through exciting and usable consumer robotics.
Dekar said he feels others should never let fear of failure dissuade them from trying something difficult. He said, “Failure is an option, fear is not. College allows you to broaden your mind and explore, and when you find what drives you, you become the work you do.”
Read about how one group of UD students responded to the original challenge from inspiring children who wanted to feed themselves, originally published in the Dayton Engineer in 2006.
About seven years ago, UD began a research project with hopes of leading to a fiber-optic, hand-held biosensor that would detect various molecules in breath, air and water.
The research group is currently examining how light passing through sensitive optical fibers can detect the presence of specific molecules, such as those present in sweat, saliva or breath. The opportunities for this device, they say, could be endless, including, early detection of disease and hazardous materials.
The research is ongoing, but would not be possible without the merging of the departments of chemistry, physics, biology and electro-optics – along with students and faculty from the School of Engineering and the Minority Leaders Program.
Electro-optics professor Dr. Joe Haus and associate biology professor Dr. Karolyn Hansen lead the research.
“I always think the middle name for UD is collaboration,” Haus said. “We get a lot of good work done when we collaborate and share equipment and ideas.”
Diego Garcia Mina, an electro-optics doctoral candidate, is from Columbia and has been working on this project for about two years.
“When you work with people from different departments you can learn from different fields and it expands your education,” Mina said. “I like applying concepts I learned to solve problems related to the fiber-optics sensor. This is an important project that can help many people in the future. When I finish after this year, I want to go back to [Columbia], continue working with sensors and find an application to a problem using what I learned at UD.”
Elaheh Ghanati, an electro-optics doctoral candidate from Iran, joined the project this summer and anticipates the device could have real health-related impact in the future.
“I am excited to be a part of this project,” Ghanati said. “…every part of the project is a challenge. [But,] if you can solve a health problem, that is the best way to use science.”
Prospective engineers were excited to arrive on campus for the annual Women in Engineering summer camp at UD July 10 – 15. Young girls from all over the United States took advantage of this opportunity to explore their potential future career in areas of engineering. The camp offered exposure to civil, electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering.
During the program campers were challenged to collaborate with each other and encouraged to develop professional connections through networking with professional engineers who came to offer their expertise.
Camper Maryleysi Cruz, from Chicago, Illinois, described her favorite part of the camp saying, “I loved making the speakers out of raw materials. It was really cool because after we made them, we could actually test them with our own phones. And they worked!”
Besides making speakers from scratch, the campers were also led to construct a scale model bridge made out of toothpicks. “It was important to work together during this experiment,” said camper Kaleah Patterson from Dayton. “A bridge can’t stand on its own.”
Alongside the campers, civil engineer professor Riad Alakkad enjoyed guiding the girls in their activities. “I loved teaching young girls and seeing their interest in STEM programs,” said Alakkad. “I liked leading them to collaborate with each other even if they are in different engineering concentrations. In the real world, no one is independent. It is the same way for engineering. You see civil, chemical, and mechanical engineers working side by side on a daily basis. I enjoyed encouraging the girls to think outside the box because that’s what’s good for them.”
For Patricia Russell, innovation comes in all forms. Not only has she taken risks professionally, starting her own consulting firm after a successful chemical engineering career, but her methods as a consultant concentrate on changing individual perspectives.
During her time as an undergraduate, Russell recorded a great deal of firsts. She helped found Minority Engineers for Advancement and was both the first woman from the Bahamas and the first African-American woman to graduate from the University with a chemical engineering degree.
After getting her master’s in chemical engineering and working in the field for several years, she discovered a different path.
“I loved chemical engineering — I liked the analytics and the numbers,” she said. “But while working as a chemical engineer, I discovered the type of work I really belonged in. It was always about people.”
Sixteen years ago, she made the leap. By starting The Russell Consulting Group, Russell was able to pursue the work she loved. Her firm works with companies, primarily in health care and higher education, to improve productivity and create a great place to work.
“A lot of consultants work on changing behavior, hoping that will impact results,” she said. “I focus on shifting thinking, on identifying thought patterns behind behaviors, on mastering ego to transform cultures.”
Russell’s engineering background has continued to serve her well, giving her firm a competitive edge.
“The strategic-thinking skills I learned help me survive the ups and downs of consulting work,” she said. “If you don’t have that strategic or critical-thinking talent, it’s almost impossible to adapt your business model.”