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At MIT, low-tech inventions with a high impact

The school's basement D-Lab exports simple solutions to the developing world.

A bike-powered corn sheller.

Joanne Ciccarello – Staff

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Amy Smith is not an easy person to track down. Even during the school year, this inventor and instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hops over to remote African towns and Latin American villages.

When she is on campus, the best bet for finding Ms. Smith is in her basement laboratory – a cluttered workshop with a long whiteboard, exotic souvenirs, and basic tools – known as D-Lab.

Unlike most of MIT, Smith's workshop is far from cutting-edge. There are no next-gen computers, no vials of polysyllabic chemicals, no fancy equipment. The space is decidedly low-tech – and that's the point. D-Lab students pinpoint practical problems in the developing countries and then brainstorm and build solutions. Because the people they are trying to help are below the poverty line, the class's inventions must be simple, effective, and most important, inexpensive.

"What people need is usually completely different from what we imagine sitting here in America," says Jodie Wu, a mechanical engineering junior, whose group went on a school-sponsored trip to Tanzania over winter break. The idea for her current project – a mobile, pedal-powered corn sheller – came from a conversation with a Tanzanian bike mechanic.

The D in D-Lab stands for three things – development, design, and dissemination – and each is the theme of a different semester-long class.

The first class travels to developing countries and identifies issues that the lab can tackle during the next term. For example, in heavily deforested countries, the students found an alternative to firewood.

The design class – often filled with different kids – takes on the practical engineering. Here they planned and built a charcoal-briquette maker, a metal press that can make clean-burning fuel out of agricultural waste. "It could be corncobs in Tibet and sugar-cane waste in Haiti," says Derek Brine, a teaching assistant.

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