Rice University's program aims to open students’ eyes to the challenges of global health, and help them use the tools of science and engineering to design solutions that are affordable, effective, and culturally appropriate.
A low-cost fluorescence microscope that makes malaria and tuberculosis diagnosis easier. A backpack full of diagnostic tools—including a microscope, centrifuge, and rapid tests—that nurses in the developing world can use to accurately determine what is making a patient sick. A tiny clip that pharmacists can attach to a syringe to prevent patients from overdosing. These are some of the practical solutions to real-world problems that students in Rice University’s Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program have developed.
“Our program aims to open students’ eyes to the challenges of global health, and help them use the tools of science and engineering to design solutions that are affordable, effective, and culturally appropriate,” says Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor. After coursework on the health challenges of poor communities, students put their knowledge to work. In the first BTB class, students get an introduction to biomedical engineering and design a simple solution to a real-world global health problem. Those who join the BTB minor—which includes four additional BTB classes and two related electives—tackle progressively more difficult design problems. Engineering solutions for global health has captured the imagination of Rice’s students: since 2006, more than 10 percent of all Rice undergraduates have taken one or more of the classes, with participants from science, engineering, humanities, and social science majors. Some have even traveled to developing nations to test their designs in local clinics.
With part of a new $1.2 million grant, Rice will expand to a national scale. An annual outreach workshop on bioengineering and world health for high school teachers will recruit the best science and engineering teachers from across the country to start up similar programs. Rice will also invite undergraduates from other universities and local high schoolers whose teachers were trained in the outreach workshop to participate in an international health technologies design competition, which they hope will become a forum for students to share their designs and experiences and find mentors for future career guidance.
“I’m excited about the opportunity for students nationwide to be a vital part of the process of designing a new technology and seeing the impact that it has,” Richards-Kortum says. “I think we’re creating a generation of students who can design solutions to important global health problems.”