Amy Smith ‘84, SM ‘95, ME ‘95, knows firsthand about the hazards of indoor pollution. She’d learned that respiratory infections kill more children under five worldwide than any other disease–and that burning wood, dung, and other dirty household fuels is the major culprit. When the ever-practical mechanical engineer tackled the source of the problem, experimenting with a little Haitian cookstove on her front porch, she found that the smoke isn’t great for adults, either. After tinkering with ways to make a clean-burning charcoal from common agricultural waste found in Haiti, she developed a racking cough.
At first she tolerated her affliction as another exercise in understanding the basic needs of the poorest rural people in developing countries. Every fall 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. But unlike the poverty exercise, being sick was hindering her efforts to change lives with simple technologies–and to provide hands-on training for students who share that ambition.
Smith (who eventually treated her lung infection with antibiotics) contends that in development work, such training is too often overlooked. “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.”
At MIT, Smith’s ingenuity and vision have melded in a way that’s both productive and inspiring. Equal parts inventor, coach, and envoy, she oversees the Edgerton Center’s D-Lab, a series of four undergraduate courses focused on conceiving, designing, and disseminating technologies that serve the needs of developing countries.
“Amy is one of the leading bright lights [and] the most conspicuous leader in the effort to involve students in solving the vexing problems in developing countries,” says Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research and director of the Edgerton Center. “She really has a passion for how a little bit of help in the right place can make a huge impact in the quality of life for someone living in poverty.”
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.