By Gina Beach
Stories in this student-led and -written Outlook series highlight the distinctive summer internships and work experiences of students from across the academic spectrum.
A summer of thesis research in Africa helped Timothy Cyders make a dent in a global issue. His design for a human-powered utility vehicle is easing transportation difficulties in Meri, Cameroon, and has the potential to positively affect people around the globe.
Cyders, a graduate student in the Russ College of Engineering, focuses his studies on "appropriate technology," which considers environmental, economic and cultural factors as they relate to the end user. As a textbook example of appropriate technology, Cyders' design is mindful of the lack of materials and mechanics in the rugged terrain that exists in Cameroon.
The mostly metal, pedal-powered vehicle has three wheels and a large storage space in back to haul goods or people. His goal was to implement a vehicle that could be made and modified by local mechanics.
"Any African community has broken-down vehicles by the side of the road," said Cyders, who first visited Africa in 2006 as an Ohio University undergraduate on an Engineers Without Borders trip to Maase-Offinso, Ghana. "Some need a small part that is easily replaceable in the U.S."
Cyders' thesis adviser, Greg Kremer, understands his motivation.
"When (Cyders) graduated, he had this passion to help people," said Kremer, an adviser on the Engineers Without Borders trip. "(After a year in the workforce), he wanted to come back to graduate school to work on projects that would help people in developing countries."
Cyders' fiancee, Jessica Jensen, also an Ohio University graduate, is a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Cameroon. It was a trip to visit her that inspired Cyders to conduct his thesis work there. After his initial assessment trip, he went through the design process with other engineers at Ohio University while Jensen acted as a liaison in Cameroon. This summer, on Cyders' fifth trip to Africa, he helped local mechanics produce an alpha prototype.
The prototype took 180 hours to construct, but Cyders expects subsequent units to require 80 to 90 hours. The mechanics will be able to modify the vehicle to make it stronger, more compact or lighter, as they see fit.
"As (Cyders) was showing (the vehicle) off, it was the local mechanics who were taking ownership and answering questions and telling him ways to make it better," Kremer said. "It's empowered them."
Empowerment is key to appropriate technologies, which typically are easier to maintain and require fewer physical and monetary resources to produce.
"The end goal for appropriate technologies is for them to no longer need me so they can stand on their own two feet," Cyders said.
Although each vehicle eventually will be produced in the equivalent of less than four days, the invention process required an estimated 2,000 man hours and $14,000. A $5,224 Student Enhancement Award from the Office of the Vice President for Research partially offset Cyders' costs, and he funded the remainder personally.
"It's a rather simple, small technology," said Cyders, who will present his work at the International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Boston this November. "It's not incredibly intense, but that's the cost of development."
Cyders now is working with Heffer Cameroon, a nongovernmental organization that builds carts for rural farmers. He hopes the organization will adopt his design, for which he secured a General Public License so anyone can freely use the plans.
Though Cyders, a native of Ashland, Ohio, expects to graduate this quarter, his work harnessing human power is not done. He sees it as a way to address such global problems as energy dependence and pollution, and he hopes to enroll in a doctoral program through which he can continue his research.
According to Kremer, Cyders' project was atypical for a master's thesis, but because it addressed a real-world issue, it was a tremendous success. After all, Kremer said, the only projects worth doing are ones suggested by the customer.
"He went out in the world and did a project to transform society, to change the world, do something good," Kremer said.
Updated Oct. 28, 2008, to include Cyders' hometown.