A team of Cal Poly engineering students won first place in this year’s national Team Tech Competition after developing a sustainable oxygen generator system for rural regions of Malawi.
The competition, sponsored by Boeing, was established in 1992 as a Society of Women Engineers contest that emphasizes the key role of teamwork and interface with industry in the engineering educational process.
The 12-member, multi-disciplinary Cal Poly team worked with engineering firm Mazzetti, faculty advisors Helene Finger and Liz Thompson, and Ruth Mtuwa, a biomedical engineering student from Malawi University of Science and Technology.
As the team directors explained in their Power Point presentation, Mazzetti identified that the country of Malawi had been drastically affected by Covid-19.
“A combination of medical oxygen shortages and unreliable grid power in rural regions limited communities’ access to medical oxygen,” co-director Bonnie Brown said during the final presentation.
The country also lacks accessible and appropriate components, which negatively impacts device maintenance and repairability.
With that in mind, Mazzetti requested a design for a system capable of filling cylinders with purified oxygen in a 24-hour period. The device would also have a power source that could sustainably provide electricity during regional power outages.
“Working with the Mazzetti professionals taught me how to effectively and professionally interface with industry, translate and present technical engineering designs and concepts, and utilize feedback to improve a product,” said Brown, a manufacturing engineering student.
Working with Malawi residents, both directors said, helped them understand the value of listening to the customer on a human-centered design while also becoming more socially and culturally aware of the challenges of implementing new technologies in different countries and the critical needs for accessible healthcare abroad.
“I do believe that the bare minimum for working on projects abroad includes working with the people directly because they know what’s best for them,” said co-director Julianna Caballero. “Bonnie and I were very determined to have a respectful, human-centered design approach, and, ultimately, listening to the voice of the customer is what made our project stand out in the competition.”
The Cal Poly team was divided into specialties, and seven different majors were represented. For the yearlong competition, the team held weekly meetings. They also researched their proposal, designed a concept and tested both virtual and physical models before documenting everything in a Power Point.
Mazzetti recommended the team utilize pull planning to collaboratively set, monitor, and accomplish goals. Meanwhile, Mtuwa offered insight into daily life in Malawi and how the team could realistically integrate its device into the community. Another Malawi local helped establish contacts with local parts suppliers and hospitals.
This year’s Team Tech finalists also included teams from University of Michigan, Purdue University, University of Florida, University of Illinois, and UC Berkeley.
Beyond winning a cash award, the team gathered valuable experience addressing a real issue.
“I have always been passionate about the intersection between engineering and making a positive social impact,” Brown said. “The Society of Women Engineers’ Team Tech competition offered the perfect platform to expand upon my interests by creating a product to improve people’s lives on a large scale.”
Caballero first became involved with Team Tech as a freshman, when her team developed a wheelchair accessibility system for rides at Universal Studios.
“My positive experience in this role led me to apply and, eventually, obtain my leadership role as Team Tech Director for 2020-21,” she said.
While she was a subgroup leader in the past, being a director allowed her to oversee the bigger picture.
“Although I am a civil engineering major, and this project was more mechanical and electrical driven, I still learned a lot of skills I could apply in the workforce, from leadership and communication to time-management and organization,” Caballero said.
While Caballero hopes to use engineering to help people in her career, Brown plans to hone her leadership skills in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management.
“This experience only deepened my love of leading, collaborating and problem solving in a technically challenging environment,” she said.