Engineering students propose eight ways to change the world

9 July 2014

Anti-flooding street umbrellas, neighbourhood heat storage batteries, and utra-low emission vehicles for driving schools: just some of the ideas generated by engineering students over the last two weeks when challenged to ‘change the world’.UCL’s inaugural How to Change the World course, created by UCL’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) and UCL Integrated Engineering Programme, took students from across diverse courses and invited external agencies to set them challenges. 

Dame Nicola Brewer, Vice-Provost (International of UCL, introduces students to the 'How to Change the World' programme.

These were broad in scope, but students worked in teams to refine the brief and choose a problem they could tackle. With the help of guest speakers, workshops, and cohort leads from inside and outside UCL, they developed and proposed prototype solutions.

After a welcome from UCL’s new Vice Provost (International) Dame Nicola Brewer, and briefings editor for the Economist, Oliver Morton, the winners in each of the challenge categories, selected by the cohort leads, presented their solutions.

Challenge: Really smart heating, set by the Department for Energy and Climate Change

Team E Heat, the winners of this category, proposed to smooth out the patchy provision of current renewable supplies by installing community-level heat storage in the form of zeolites. These materials, made of aluminium and silicon, are highly absorbent of water and can store a lot of heat, acting as ‘thermal batteries’. Max Stanford, the challenge setter from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said:

“The concept was really innovative, not only in its problem solving design, but also in identifying the potential district heating has to be a key element of the UK’s energy future.”

Challenge: Valuing materials, set by the Department for Energy and Climate Change

The eccentrically named ‘Where is Alonso?’ were commended for their approach looking at the energy used in packaging. After some shocking statistics, including that the energy taken to manufacture a TV’s styrofoam packaging would be enough to run it for 386 hours, they suggest an alternative: locally made cardboard made from fast-growing, easily recycled bamboo.

Challenge: Forecast based disaster preparedness, set by the Red Cross

Team 7 addressed the problem of flooding in a Zambian village by focusing on the biggest cause of death following disasters: loss of crops leading to starvation. To protect the crops, they suggested short, medium and long term solutions, including building levees, reforestation with local mopane trees or the construction of a dam, respectively.

Challenge: Crowdsourcing for humanitarian relief, set by the Red Cross

Challenge winners, Team 12, set out to improve the way Red Cross make maps in  less developed countries. They proposed using a combination of hand drawn maps and stickers to allow local people to contribute information, and then collating it using software.

Challenge: Personal travel demand, set by the Department for Transport

Team Swift won with two proposals responding to the observation that people want fast, more convenient buses. First, they proposed a remote chip that would speed up boarding by eliminating even the need to tap an Oyster card on a sensor, instead just detecting as people walk through. Secondly, they suggested that each line run semi-fast and fast buses which skipped every 5 or 25 stops, taking different routes between them to ease congestion.

Challenge: Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) cities, set by the Department for Transport

Noting that vehicle preferences are set early on, Team 10 won with a novel suggestion to offer to swap driving instructors’ vehicles for dual-control electric cars. They proposed this would normalise ULEV usage and encourage people to buy ULEVs as they would be more familiar with them, while offering a financial incentive to instructors and learners by saving on fuel and running costs.

Challenge: Flood Resilient Cities, set by the UK Environment Agency

Team Nero observed that 140,000 people in London are at risk form water surface flooding, with typical areas at risk lacking vegetation, but having valuable property or cultural assets. They proposed a new item of street furniture: a water-harvesting umbrella which would extend when it rained and collect the downpour, for later slow release to sewers.

Challenge: Safer schools, set by the World Bank and ARUP

The Edusafe team worked on the principle that the support and local insight of the community is crucial to establishing any facility, and developed a thorough methodology for engaging with relevant members of the community and gathering their support for developing safer schools in disaster-prone areas.

The teams were questioned afterwards by Oliver Morton of the Economist, before their peers in the crowd voted collectively for the best idea. They chose Team Swift as the overall winners for their stop-skipping bus solution. The aspiring transport-reformers said:

“We believe the key to our success was that each member of our team contributed to the development of the project using their unique skills. Bee came up with the idea of an electronic chip, Michal invented the bus operation system, Hasan made a computer simulation and a video, Nida did vital research on the bus usage statistics and Keqin helped us to analyse the data.

We appreciate the victory: however the real satisfaction would come from seeing our idea actually implemented on London bus lines.”

Dr John Mitchell, Director of the Integrated Engineering Programme, said:

“We wanted to do this to make our students think about the influence your skills can have. The world our children inherit will depend on you. Some of you will go on and make huge impacts, world changing discoveries; for some, the smaller things, apps you develop, how you operate, will have an influence. If you think about how what you are designing impacts people, we have a chance of making a change to our world.”

Change the World finalists on stage awaiting the popular vote

Change the World finalists on stage waiting for their fellow students to vote for the overall winners


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