Amy Banzaert's Engineering Courses Work on Real Solutions, from the Charles River to Nicaragua

March 5, 2014

Professor Amy Banzaert’s first-year seminar was part How It Works, part hands-on engineering lab, and all-out immersion in the world of invention. Last fall, EXTD111: Product Creation for All explored how products are created, including an exploration of ideation and brainstorming, reverse engineering, and the product development process. Banzaert invited her students to consider the human factors in engineering, and to analyze both successes and failures in the usability of specific products. Students also tried their hand at product creation through designing simple product prototypes for local nonprofit organization serving underserved populations, such as Community Rowing, Inc. Throughout the process, the students documented their experiences and ideas through design blogs, which Banzaert reviewed. “Teaching a diverse group of first-year students engineering concepts has been wonderful," she said. "They bring a tremendous variety of interests and reasons for taking the class—most do not plan to be engineers—that allows for impressive creativity and exploration of concepts.”  

After the conclusion of the fall semester, Banzaert traveled to Sabana Grande, Nicaragua, with five students from her previous engineering course, EXTD120. In the Wintersession course, the students presented and implemented several projects developed in the Wellesley lab. This included a  “luz en litro,” a filled water bottle placed in the roof of a house to diffuse light more efficiently throughout the interior of the home, and a “bici-licuidora,” a blender powered by stationary bicycle pedaling, used to earn money at outdoor events by a youth group called Jóvenes Pedaleando Hasta el Futuro. The students also learned how to make and install solar panels for the Solar Women of Totogalpa, a collective of women that promotes renewable energy in rural Nicaragua. The most important aspect of the trip, however, wasn’t found in mastering the circuitry for solar panels, but in the cultural exchanges the students and Banzaert were immersed in every day.

“It was exciting for my students to be able to see how their technologies were received—what was beneficial, what wasn’t a good fit yet, and what needs to still be worked on in future semesters—it was all very rewarding,” said Banzaert. “But it was also great to have time to really explore some of the cultural and historical aspects of Nicaragua so that we were looking at this technology in the context of the greater realities of the country.  I felt it was my first experience bringing a liberal arts perspective to the technology.”

Monica Gates ’15 described the trip for her blog for the Admissions office, writing, “We had so many experiences, of all different natures—we engineered solar panels, presented our coursework with much more improvisation than usual, took Spanish lessons, learned about the United States’ (unfortunate) role in the history of Nicaragua, got along with our fellow travelers, visited a geothermal plant, hung out with our host families, used latrines and carried water back from the wells, released baby turtles in the ocean in sunset, and listened, enraptured, to Professor Banzaert’s comments on how what we were seeing fit into the country’s context, the international world, and the community. There were parts of the trip that were like a vacation, there were parts of the trip that were like school, and most of it was not like anything I’d done before.”

Spotlight on Teaching is a recurring feature that highlights the array of innovative, thought-provoking Wellesley courses each month.

—Susan Puente-Matos ’14