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US College Teams Invent for a Better World


Twelve teams were selected from 100 applicants to participate in the March Madness for the Mind. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, or NCIIA, sponsors the event, which takes its name from the annual collegiate basketball tournament in the United States known as March Madness.

While inventions ran the gamut from a 3D imaging system to device to diagnose dizziness, many of the projects targeted the developing world. "I really think it is a testament to students in the U.S. today that there is a lot more awareness of global issues," says Humera Fasihuddin, a program manager at NCIIA. "There are students working on some pretty big problems."

Telemedicine in East Africa

Problems like a lack of doctors in rural East Africa, where they have one doctor for every 50,000 people. Julia Wittig of Pennsylvania State University. "A lot of times making the decision whether to go to the doctor or not is one of the most important [decisions they make]," says Julia Wittig of Pennsylvania State University. "If you are living in a rural area, it takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money."

Wittig and other students from Pennsylvania State University developed a global telemedicine system to address that issue by using a laptop and cell phone connection to transmit data from rural communities to a Web server. "Doctors around the world as well as local doctors can access [the data] and provide feedback."

Sensors that measure heart rhythm, temperature, and blood pressure can be connected directly to the laptop. The data is recorded and transmitted to the Web server, where a doctor can review it and determine whether the patient needs to be seen in person or not.

Wittig's team went to Tanzania last summer to do feasibility studies and will test the system this summer in Kenya.

A new lantern and a human-powered water pump


Cooper Union's team traveled to Ghana to assess needs there. The community they met with asked them to design a better source of light.

"Currently charities go over there and give away a lot of lanterns, but they pretty much break after six months," says Anurag Panda. "We provide a small kit and the community builds their own lantern, learns how to use the equipment, so it's a self-sustaining project."

Agriculture was the focus of the engineering team from Washington State University. Brendan Dallas says they traveled to Malawi to test their water pump, which is so easy to use, even a child can operate it. "We specifically designed it to be used [with] human power, because electricity isn't an option," Dallas says.

He notes the pump is made of materials that are readily available in the regions where it will be used. "That means more jobs in those locations." Although the pumps are designed to handle heavy use and rugged conditions, using materials that are readily available also means they are easy to repair if they should break.

Wheelchairs from bicycles

Easy repair was the primary concern of a team from the California Institute of Technology that developed a design for a wheelchair. "If you have a wheelchair that can be repaired in country, you can get it repaired cheaper and faster," says Daniel Oliver, executive director of Intelligent Mobility International, a non-profit organization he and several friends formed after graduating.

Their wheelchair is made from bicycle bearings, wheels and tires. "If any of those parts wear out or break, the user can take the chair into any bike shop, which are prevalent throughout the developing world, and get them fixed instantly."

Like most of the projects on display at March Madness for the Mind, the wheelchair originated as a class project. Oliver says the class Engineering for the Developing World was a way for him to use his engineering skills "to instantly make a difference."

Intelligent Mobility International is already producing its wheelchair in Guatemala. The other teams are still fine-tuning their projects, but hope to have them in communities where they can make a difference soon.

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