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Adventures in Engineering: Students Develop Weeding Technology with Thai Farmers

August 3, 2012

Thai Harvest GroupA group of Drexel University students are redefining the way the world approaches rural agriculture.  To address a problem that has plagued the remote Bo Klua region of Thailand for over 700 years, an interdisciplinary team of students from Drexel University’s Thai Harvest Initiative departed Philadelphia on June 27, 2012 for the rural province to implement and advance sustainable farming technologies.

The people of the Bo Klua district sustain their livelihood on the northeastern region’s extreme slopes, which are often as great as 70 degrees. Like 40 percent of Thailand’s people, the 30,000 Bo Klua residents are farmers.  For those living in this mountainous terrain, cultivating rice consumes nearly all of their time. Farming such a steep angle with rudimentary tools has caused nearly epidemic levels of chronic back pain, and some still go hungry.

In order to successfully grow rice, the farmers must cut numerous weeds every day for months each year. The Thai Harvest team invented a prototype tool designed to make cutting the weeds easier.  The team’s design: a custom metal blade attached to a sliding mechanism on a PVC pipe that can be made inexpensively using local parts. A single stabbing motion allows the farmers to chop the weeds from a standing position; the once back-breaking task of stooping to chop weeds is now accomplished with relative comfort.

The students developed the tool as a part of their Senior Design project by building on systematic discussions with people in the region and experimenting on similar terrain the Philadelphia area. “It was so hard to picture the conditions. When we got there, it was a big shock to see the extreme terrain they [the Thai farmers] work in,” said Magid Bdeir, this year’s student lead. 

The team worked in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Research Foundation, a charitable organization that focuses on improving the quality of life in a sustainable manner for people in Thailand. Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics students; Magid Bdeir, Jorye Gross, Manny Georganas and graphic design student Hannah Olin, along with their advisor, professor Alexander Moseson of the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department made the trip.  Biomedical Engineering student Nick Padovani and Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics student Manda Keita worked on the project as well but did not travel to Thailand.

The trip marked the culmination of months of sweat, ingenuity and hard work.  During the twelve days they visited Bo Klua, the students conducted two workshops for 68 farmers from 15 different villages to improve the design collaboratively  and to teach them how to build it.  The attendees represented 4,500 farmers in their own villages and thousands more in the broader community.  The group was struck most by the willingness of the attendees to ask questions and suggest changes to the team’s prototype. “Our design was met with skepticism at first. It was justified. They could pick out design errors right away.  They know a lot more about farming than we do,” said Bdeir.

While in Thailand, the team also established a make-shift work shop and secured suppliers of raw materials for the construction of future tools. In addition to engineering the weeding tool, the team’s graphic designer, Hannah Olin, developed a step-by-step open-source pictorial manual and a poster that will allow the Bo Klua residents to teach others how to build the weeder.

The Thai Harvest Initiative began in 2009 after Moseson visited the region. Struck by the subsistence lifestyle of the people, he began looking for ways that Drexel students could engage to help Bo Klua.  In 2010, a team of senior design students developed a rice planter that stores the seeds, drills a hole and drops the seed in a single motion. They traveled to Thailand in June 2011 to teach the residents how to build the rice planter.

Moseson believes that “technology can’t just work technically – it must also work for people socially, economically, and environmentally.” Thai Harvests mission is to not only develop new farming tools and technologies, but to enable people to innovate. “Our goal is to empower people with the confidence to design and execute their own tools,” Moseson said. As a part of their mission, the team’s designs are available for free on their website, including those translated to Thai.

During the 2012-2013 year Thai Harvest plans to make improvements to their rice planter based on suggestions from the farmers and to develop sustainable solutions to improve water quality in the region of 30,000. They intend to return to Bo Klua next summer to implement new designs. “It’s really important that we continue to get back there and build on our established relationship,” Olin said.

At its core, the Thai Harvest Initiative is about changing lives on both sides of the world.  It’s nearly impossible for those involved to walk away without a deeper understanding of a different way of life. “I couldn’t believe how stress free and happy they [the Thai villagers] were despite working so hard every day,” Bdeir said. The trip marked many firsts for the team which included eating crickets, swimming in waterfalls, and getting stitches. The team kept a blog detailing their adventure.