Syracuse University Magazine


As part of the independent study course Sustainable Design for Health Delivery in Ghana, students visited a health clinic in Tamale, Ghana, last summer.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Darling

Problem Solving in Ghana

With January temperatures above 80 degrees, Ghana might qualify as an attractive winter-break destination for many Syracuse students. But Francesca Coppola ’11 and Razan Fashho ’11 traveled to West Africa carrying more than a desire for a tropical getaway. They had just completed Professor Andrew Darling’s fall semester bioengineering capstone design course. Working as members of student teams, they had come up with solutions to a pair of long-standing problems hindering quality health care in rural Ghana, where electric power, potable water, and passable roads are all in short supply. One group took on the challenge of sterilizing cloth bandages without electricity; the other team designed a method for on-site production of sterile saline solution, needed to treat dehydration from diarrhea, often fatal to children in the region. After four months in the lab, Coppola and Fashho had come to Ghana to test their solutions and present them to officials. “Engineers, by nature, are problem solvers,” says Darling, who accompanied them. “But for capstone projects to be meaningful, it’s essential for students to address real problems faced by people who feel the consequences. Creating a successful engineering solution begins with an understanding of how to identify that kind of problem.”

Darling had this in mind the previous summer when he arranged a crash course in problem identification for two of his students. Using his 2010 Faculty Excellence Award, Darling provided funding for Coppola and Thomas Law ’11 to pursue an independent study with him in rural Ghana while they took Sustainable Design for Health Delivery in Ghana, a School of Architecture course. “I assigned them to identify a problem in need of a technical solution,” Darling says. “I encouraged them to ask questions, brainstorm with each other, and continually ask people what they thought ought to be improved.”

Fresh from that five-week immersion experience, Cop­pola and Law helped the capstone students hit the ground running. “The hands-on experience abroad pushed us to go above and beyond,” Law says. “It woke us up to a world full of problems that we, as engineers, have a calling to solve with the tools at our disposal.” In designing a bandage sterilization technique, students modified a stove-top autoclave (steaming device) already used in rural Ghana to sterilize metal implements. “We added an air rifle vacuum pump and installed a flow gauge,” Fashho says. “This allows us to suck all the moisture out of sterile gauze after steaming.” The saline solution team used a multi-step solar purification process that reduces the microbial populations to levels found in commercially distilled water.

After conducting on-site tests in Ghana, Coppola and Fashho made presentations to Vestergaard Frandsen, a manufacturer of handheld water purifiers, and the Water Resources Commission of Ghana. “The assessments on both projects were generally ‘thumbs up,’ a nice conclusion for the capstone projects,” Darling says. Students then presented the prototypes at several conferences and each team placed well at the National Global Health Technologies Design Competition at Rice University in Houston.

Some kinks remain in both devices; working them out will be left to future capstone students. Law recommends a trip to Ghana as worthwhile preparation. “This endeavor taught me more about the world, engineering, and my long-term personal and professional goals than any amount of coursework I could have done,” he says. —David Marc

The Faculty Excellence Award

at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science is made possible by a gift from Brian ’64 and Emily Beals of Jasper, Georgia.