Every fall Botswana RPCV Amy Smith, a senior lecturer at MIT, joins her students in a one-week assignment to live on $2 a day, to prepare for field trips to remote villages in places like Ghana, Honduras, and Zambia
"I want to create a generation of engineers who are doers and active problem solvers," she says. "There is a history in international development of people going into the field with little technical background and coming up with things that are not effective. More and more, people are starting to recognize that problem-solving under the severe constraints of the developing world is difficult [and requires] real engineering skills." Inventor Amy Smith teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana.
Smith's efforts to get students involved extend well beyond the classroom. Working with MIT's Public Service Center, Smith cofounded the IDEAS (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, Service) Competition, whose cash awards encourage students to develop and implement projects that make a positive change in the world. She also helped organize the International Development Network at MIT and assists in its annual student fair. This year, a record 50 groups took part, only two of which were spawned by D-Lab or IDEAS. Now she's plotting a month-long design fest this summer to spur visiting community leaders from developing countries to collaborate with student teams from MIT and elsewhere.
Smith's approach to saving the world is pragmatic, much like her engineering philosophy. "There is a certain kind of engineering that I like to do," she says. "I don't like electricity and gadgetry. I simplify and simplify. None of my designs are complex. I always try to eliminate another part." She reduces problems to basic principles, hoping to uncover an equally basic solution. By keeping things simple, she increases the odds that her inventions will be adopted in poor countries.
Botswana RPCV Amy Smith won MacArthur 'Genius' Grant for her work in using technology to solve problems in the developing world
Amy Smith, 41, is dedicated to using technology to solve problems in the developing world. Smith said the MacArthur award "is pretty exciting, though a little scary. I've always operated on a shoestring. It'll be odd to do it differently for a change."
Smith is a mechanical engineer and inventor who designs "life-enhancing solutions and labor-saving technologies for people at the far end of dirt roads in the world's most remote societies -- people facing crises that erupt in health clinics with no electricity and in villages with no clean water," according to the MacArthur Foundation biography.
"Striking in their simplicity and effectiveness, her inventions include grain-grinding hammer mills, water-purification devices and field incubators for biologic testing, each reflecting her inordinate creativity and ingenuity," the biography said.
"I currently have very little funding for my projects, so this gives me a lot more flexibility," said Smith, who is working on two projects in Haiti. "I will be able to move forward a lot faster now. There's so much to do in Haiti, it's really nice to have the resources to keep these projects going, and start new projects, too."