I am a fourth year Industrial Engineering student that had the opportunity to travel to Lira, Uganda with two other students for our senior capstone project. Our project was to help a non-profit organization called the International Lifeline Fund   define and detail their cook stove manufacturing process. The International Lifeline Fund (ILF) seeks to improve the quality of life of the underprivileged by expanding access to energy solutions and clean water. Their factory in Lira, Uganda manufactures commercial cookstoves that are fuel efficient and cater to the needs of consumers in Uganda.

 Our team was specifically tasked with collecting inputs that would help ILF develop an eventual manufacturing operating system to better anticipate the material and labor required to meet their demand. The team used the first term of the capstone series to formulate a data collection plan to ensure when the team travelled to Uganda that we were able to document everything required successfully. This process involved using time studies and capturing video in addition to collecting verbal data on process steps from the staff at the factory. Additionally, the data collection plan went through several iterations in order to incorporate the perspective of our sponsor in our plan.

During spring break, the team arrived in Uganda. We collected a variety of data ranging from cycle times to material flow and ordering. The ILF staff were very helpful and welcoming to ensure we had a successful trip. However, one staff member especially stood out: Asmon.

After several days of travelling, the team finally arrived at the guest house in Lira in the late evening. Upon arrival, we were immediately welcomed by the brightest smile. It was Asmon, our cook for the next two weeks. He introduced himself humbly, took our bags, then escorted us into the guesthouse. We arrived just in time for dinner. Asmon prepared a tomato and avocado salad with an eggplant carbonara, all sourced from the local market. After so many days of travel and mediocre food, the cuisine he prepared was rejuvenating.Throughout our trip, Asmon would continue to prepare incredible food, leading us into a deep dive into Ugandan cuisine. Asmon is the jack of all trades when it comes to food. He can make any meal to the caliber of a Michelin star chef. For breakfast, everyday we had crepes, avocado toast, and the freshest variety of fruit. For lunch, we went to the office that ILF owns, where Asmon would prepare a curry with beans and fufu, a fluffy cornmeal dish, similar to rice. Lastly, each night for dinner, Asmon would make a special dish. We tried goat, several different currys, and beef dishes. 

When Asmon wasn’t going out of his way to spoil us with his cooking, he was our tour guide. Asmon was really excited to show us around town, guiding us through all the essential local tourist spots. Asmon showed us the marketplace and we were able to buy the most delectable passion fruit. Asmon also showed us a local cafe he used to work at where they had cinnamon rolls, a much-needed snack to remind us of back home. 

The team had an amazing experience in Uganda, and ILF treated us very well with accommodations and housing. We were very successful with our work and managed to formulate several great tools for ILF. However, what really made this trip a blessing was meeting Asmon. He showed us graciousness and kindness in everything he did. He educated the team so much about the Ugandan way of life and really made us all feel a part of their culture. We would not have had this opportunity to meet such a wonderful person if it weren’t for this project.

Reposted from International Lifeline Fund

By: Erin Peiffer

Since September of 2020, I have been working with Lifeline as a research intern. In this role, one of my major responsibilities has been planning a field study on the adoption and social impact of improved cookstoves in rural and peri-urban Uganda. Due to COVID-19, my work preparing for the study had to be carried out remotely with Lifeline staff in Uganda instead of in person. Recently, we finished data collection for the study. Reflecting on my recent experiences, here are five lessons I learned that may be useful to others remotely planning field studies.

1.) You cannot have enough communication.

In preparing for the field study, the Lifeline team and I communicated frequently through a variety of media. Virtual meetings were most helpful in aligning our understanding on the logistical aspects of the study whereas emails were great for summarizing these discussions, bookmarking important documents, and outlining next steps. After several initial meetings to determine appropriate study locations, I developed a series of training videos breaking down the field study into each component (overall field study, card sorting, and ethnographic decision trees).

Once the field study started, WhatsApp became our primary means of communicating quick updates and questions, with follow-up calls to discuss topics in more depth. Using a variety of forms of communication was helpful at each stage in the planning and implementation process to ensure the team was on the same page. On reflection, I think it would have been beneficial for us to have daily debriefing calls while data was being collected to touch base and make sure any necessary adjustments were implemented in a timely manner.

2.) Your study is only as good as your field partners.

Planning out your research questions and methodologies is only a small fraction of the work required to prepare and carry out a field study. For the rest – budgeting, logistics, understanding the local context (community engagement strategies, politics, security, etc.), and much more – I was completely reliant on Lifeline staff; namely, Rebecca Apicha and Doreen Asio Faso from the Environment team). Their input, collaboration, and dedication to this project was absolutely crucial to accomplishing our goals. Without their insight and support, I could have never pulled off the study.

3.) Test your instruments first.

Our field study was carried out in two phases. The first included open-ended, semi-structured interviews and a card sorting activity on social impacts. The second phase involved asking close-ended survey questions. In the first phase, I worked collaboratively with Lifeline staff on developing the interview protocol and then data collection began. I learned quickly that we should have tested the instruments on a few participants before launching into full data collection.

Feedback I received from field staff after that first day was extremely insightful. I learned that most participants in Lira did not want to be audio recorded during the card sorting activity. If we had known this was going to be a large obstacle, we could have adjusted our protocol and tools to collect the same data through different means. Additionally, participants were reluctant to say that certain social impacts were not impacted or negatively impacted. Similarly, had we tested our instruments on a small group first, we could have updated the protocol accordingly and ensured that all of the data collected met our initial goals.

Learning from this experience, in the second phase of data collection we tested out our survey prior to starting data collection. This was helpful in improving the survey for clarity and ease of implementation. I learned that having multiple choice options on the survey was much easier and faster compared to manually entering data. Since the survey included close-ended questions (with a limited set of options to select), making sure the survey sufficiently captured the appropriate range of responses was very important. We still had to make some adjustments throughout the remainder of data collection, but I think we avoided some major pitfalls by testing the survey first.

4.) Be ready to adjust your plans.

In a perfect world, the study you plan is the study you execute. In reality, this is rare, especially when trying to plan a study remotely from a different country. Our timeline was the most impacted. First, we couldn’t start data collection until our study was approved by Oregon State University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) which occurred several weeks after my initial time estimate.

Once we received IRB approval, we then had to shift our field study start date again. Originally, we had planned to start data collection the same week as Uganda’s national elections. Members of the Lifeline team recommended moving the field study start date by two weeks; first, to ensure that participants did not perceive the field study to be linked to the elections and, second, to account for any security considerations that might arise as a result of the election.

Other safety concerns about recent violence in Karamoja were brought to our attention right before we were planning to start data collection for the second phase of the study, leading us to consider postponing data collection again or even changing the study locations. In the end, we decided to proceed as planned, but made sure to end data collection earlier in the day so field staff could make it home before dark when violence is more likely, and to only collect data in well trafficked areas.

Lastly, we had to revisit the budget and timeline again near the very end of the project when I had to increase the sample sizes due to a miscalculation early in the planning of the study. Thankfully, everything worked out because we had the flexibility to adjust as needed throughout the process. If our timeline had been less forgiving, or our budget absolute, we may have run into problems.

5.) Stay calm, and trust in your team.

Planning a field study can be stressful, especially when you can’t be there in person to provide hands-on assistance. During our field study, I learned to trust the expertise of Lifeline’s field staff in carrying out the study successfully. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to work and grow with Lifeline during this field study, and I hope that my lessons learned throughout this process help others in remotely planning field studies in the future.


I am a 4th year mechanical engineering student in the humanitarian engineering program, and this past summer I interned at the Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon. My work at Aprovecho consisted of testing intervention systems to improve air quality in kitchens where people are cooking with wood-burning cookstoves. I spent the summer conducting experiments in Aprovecho’s Test Kitchen to gain better understanding of how smoke from a wood burning stove fills a space, and how to reduce harmful smoke exposure for cooks and their families. 

Aprovecho Research Center is a non-profit cookstove design firm that focuses on developing ways to make cook stoves cleaner-burning and more efficient thereby decreasing the amount of fuel burned and emissions produced including black carbon going into our atmosphere and  health-harming fine particles (PM) inhaled by individuals. Ultimately we hope that this research will provide insights into low cost interventions that can reduce the harmful health effects of cooking by the 40% of the world’s population that currently relies on biomass burned in open fires to meet the majority of their energy needs.

The test kitchen is a room at Aprovecho Research Center that has adjustable ventilation and is used to simulate the kitchens of many people all over the world. This helps researchers to understand what levels of emissions people are exposed to, and how to improve those conditions. The cook stove user sits outside the room and operates the stove while sensors collect carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and PM levels in the room and above the stove.

Photo of test Kitchen

The project began with getting several types of preliminary data. Data on air quality while a stove was burning was taken in the test kitchen with no smoke intervention systems, and then with an intervention system such as a ventilation exhaust fan in place. My job for this portion of the test kitchen project was to use Excel Macros to compile the test and calibration data into tables for it to be analyzed. I also performed 30 minute stove tests, helped analyze the data with my superiors and spent time writing up what we were doing and why. I learned a lot about calibration and how research work is done using different machines and analysis techniques. 

After collecting preliminary data of the test kitchen with no intervention system, I was asked to make the intervention fan bigger. I determined the best way to increase the fan ventilation rate based on the data, constructed the new fan configuration, and install it into the test kitchen so it could be tested. This was one of my favorite projects at Aprovecho because I had to be innovative in my thinking, was able to participate in every step of development, and I saw the results of it in action.

Photo of Fan Configuration

After determining the efficiency of this new fan, I was asked to make a hood that would incorporate the fan. This hood was essentially a large box with an enclosed top to trap the smoke and a hole in the side for the fan. I then tested this new configuration and processed all the data. 

Interior of test kitchen and side view of hood


Front of hood

Data processing was complicated, but very rewarding as I was able to see how each piece of information played into the whole picture and how effective each configuration was. At the end of my internship it was determined that the hood and fan combination was the most effective, with cooking outside being a close second.

My entire project was based around making a journal article, so though I did spend time testing, designing and manufacturing, I also spent time drawing diagrams for the paper. As you can tell my roles at Aprovecho were far and wide, but I enjoyed that because I was able to play a role in each part of the whole system and each week was different. 

Now that my internship is over, I’m excited to see how this summer’s work will impact the world in the future. Though I don’t think people will start installing giant hoods into their homes or cutting holes out of the wall to make room for a fan, the data collected gave insight to the behavior of emissions in an enclosed space and will help guide engineers, entrepreneurs and every day people into making products and new systems that will affect  places positively while  simultaneously not changing the lifestyle, cultural beliefs, or way of life for a community. 

Hello and greetings from Panama!


I’m an OSU mechanical engineering grad student in the HEST program currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Coclé, Panama. My work here in Panama is to design and build the distribution system of a buried, gravity-fed aqueduct system that will bring clean water to the 30 homes that make up the rural community in which I currently live. Coclé rests in the foothills of Panama’s largest mountain range, the Cordillera Central, which necessitates the 15-kilometer-long water system to cover several sharp altitude variations and their resulting pressure differentials.

I learned in my classes at OSU and my training as a Peace Corps volunteer that sustainable development happens best when we truly understand the needs and wants of the communities in which we serve, but, before coming to Panama, I could have never imagined what that really means. Now, after spending almost two years in site, I’m just now beginning to understand—sustainable development is a give-and-take, trading your own views as a designer and engineer for those of the beneficiaries of the project and constantly pressing up against that line between what you personally think will work best from an engineer’s standpoint and what the community knows will work best from their experience in site to create something that truly fits the needs of the community in a practical and sustainable way.

Before moving to Coclé, or even thinking about beginning the technical work required to design and build the water system here, I spent two months in the capital training in Spanish, Panamanian culture and history, common water systems in Panama, and common issues in Panama specifically for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) project. Then, after moving to Coclé, I spent my first three months living with a host family and integrating into the community: walking to distant houses to introduce myself and learn the jungle paths, attending community meetings, helping the moms cook lunch at the school, learning regional words and improving my Spanish by constant use, and taking part in everyday life here. While difficult and time consuming, I believe these five months of preparation were what gave me the understanding of the community and credit with community members that led to the success of the project.

In my everyday life, I work with a water committee composed of six community members elected to serve as the leadership for the water project. We make decisions such as where the main waterlines should go, when to schedule workdays to bury the lines and preform maintenance, when and what type  of fundraisers we should coordinate, and to plan meetings with the full community, especially when we want more input or commitment on a particular decision. The water committee also schedules “cuadrillas” or groups of four community repairmen that serve for a month each, providing constant maintenance and urgent repairs. Since the community has had so much influence and leadership throughout the design and implementation stages of the project, now that we are finishing the build, I feel confident they will continue improving and maintaining the system long after I complete my Peace Corps service and return back to OSU.

While I believe the Peace Corps model of sustainable development works, I’ve also found it immensely challenging. On a personal level, I’ve found it challenging to live in a rural community without electricity, reliable cell signal or really any infrastructure outside of the new water project, a two-room schoolhouse, a small chapel, a small store that mainly sells beans and rice, and the dirt-and-mud road that connects it by a 3-hour hike to the closest paved road and an hour drive to the closest major town. I love my community and treasure the work we’re doing here, but I still cannot help questioning my decision (in some small way) every time I find a tarantula or scorpion in my house or get a fever and need to hike out to the hospital or just really crave pizza or ice cream or anything that requires a refrigerator or oven to make. Yet, this also is the give-and-take required for sustainable development, a very personal give-and-take: giving up a little bit of your personal comforts and desires  to help meet the needs and desires of so many others, all the time learning more about yourself and becoming a stronger person. All 30 houses in my community are going to be connected to clean drinking water for the first time because of my service here and others who have served before me, but, more than that, these houses are going to stay connected because the project included community members from design to implementation to maintenance and empowered the community to oversee their own project. I’m still learning how all of this works, but this is what I’d call sustainable development.

For pictures of the project and life in panama, feel free to check out my Instagram @mfi2ndinda as well as the Peace Corps Panama official page @peacecorpspanama on Facebook and Instagram.


All the best,


Julia Thurber

OSU HEST Class of 2020

On Saturday, January 19, 2019, graduate students and Dr. MacCarty from the OSU Humanitarian Engineering Lab volunteered at Benton County’s “Produce for the People” as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service. An annual event that honors the legacy of Dr. King, the MLK Day of Service offers a wide variety of service opportunities for students, faculty, and Corvallis residents, with the mission of building community. One such service opportunity was gardening with Produce for the People, a non-profit organization that started through a partnership with OSU and funded by the National Institute of Health. What began as a short term research project investigating the impact of community gardens on the health of low-income Latinx residents developed into a 13,5000 sq. ft. garden that produced over 4000 lbs of produce in 2017. In addition to providing garden plots for individuals, Produce for the People donates food to local agencies including the South Corvallis Food Bank, Community Outreach, and soup kitchens. For the day of service, Humanitarian Engineering volunteers from the  got their hands dirty cleaning the fields for tilling and weeding, while other volunteers cleaned plant pots for reuse and carried mulch for planting. Produce for the People operates year round, and are seeking volunteers of any age and gardening ability. Times for volunteer work parties are listed on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pftpgarden/.

Yesterday was not only a celebrated American holiday, but also a day to recognize menstrual health around the world. Menstrual Hygiene Day is an important chance to talk about what’s been done and what we can continue to do to empower people with menstrual hygiene awareness. One area where we can continue the discussion is related to girls in school; the Human Rights Watch estimated that in 2016, one in ten girls in Africa missed school during their period. What can be done to take on this barrier to education? The first step is clearly providing basic sanitation in schools, but really it’s beyond just providing the basics of a toilet. Girls need to have a safe space where they feel comfortable enough to manage their period and menstrual waste in a healthy, hygienic way. So at our school in Southern Tanzania, we collaborated on a project to do just this: to provide the female students with both an adequate number of toilet stalls and the facilities and resources they would need to be able to manage their periods while at school every month. We built a new bathroom with six private stalls to finally meet the WHO recommendation of no more than 25 girls per one toilet stall, and ensured that each stall included a running water for cleaning. Then we were faced with the challenge of how to accommodate all of the menstrual waste materials that female students used? The current solution was for one of the stalls to be a pit latrine (rather than piped to the septic tank) and girls were told to only dispose of materials there. But in reality it was more common for girls to flush the materials down whichever stall they were using if the pit latrine was not available. This resulted in pipes clogging and the toilet facilities being spread even more thin. So after discussing solutions that had seen success in Tanzania before, we decided to build integrated furnaces into the new bathroom and also the existing bathroom building. This would allow for girls to toss their waste down a shoot without having to exit the bathroom, and then the waste could periodically be burned to hygienically dispose of the materials, and this system would increase the functionality of all of the toilets by preventing clogging. This solution is still in its early stages of use so we’ll have to continue to learn how it is being used, and how the girls feel about using it. But as we celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day, its important to talk about what work can be done to break down one barrier to female education, and to continue to empower girls through menstrual hygiene education.


For most of us, wood smoke is something we experience every once in a while from campfires, a fireplace burning nearby, and so on. We know what it feels like to get smoke in our eyes; to accidentally breathe some in, but probably just for a few moments. However, in many parts of the world, smoke plays a very different role in people’s everyday lives. More than a third of the world uses wood and charcoal fires to heat and cook – often indoors with smoky, traditional open fires and stoves.

During a three-week field trial for a cookstove usability evaluation, I found out first-hand what cooking is like for families in rural Uganda. As a student working toward a dual Master’s degree in mechanical engineering and anthropology, I traveled there to work with our colleagues at International Lifeline Fund to test a protocol I had developed to measure how effectively and efficiently a stove meets people’s needs. This work allowed me to combine engineering and social science research, and spend hours at a time in thatch-roofed huts talking to women about their stoves designs and cooking habits while they cooked. It also required me to experience the same level of smoke as these women and their families.

Traditional kitchens in this region are basically windowless, garden shed-sized rooms with indoor bonfires, so they tend to look and feel like a steam room after a few minutes of cooking (but filled with smoke, instead). The effects of this much smoke on those not accustomed to it, such as some Ugandan translators and myself, include increased complaining, coughing, and borderline uncontrollable weeping – as if we were cutting onions for hours on end. In addition to the literal sweat and tears dripping on my field notes, this experience drove home the significance of this work and these problems that I’d read about, but never quite been this close to.

According to the World Health Organization, this level of exposure on a regular basis is roughly equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day , and indoor air pollution causes more premature deaths than dirty water or all infectious diseases , . Hundreds, if not thousands of improved cookstove designs have been tried around the world in attempts to reduce smoke exposure, among other issues, yet many of them have never caught on, in no small part because these stoves do not always meet cooks’ needs. Engineers working on these issues don’t often have the opportunity to collaborate with social scientists and other experts, so they tend to produce stoves that burn cleanly and efficiently, but sometimes at the expense of the ease-of-use, practicality, and ability to cook staple foods offered by traditional cooking methods. As a result, many improved stoves predictably go unused or unsold and never have the impact intended.

The test results and field notes from this trip (which still smell like smoke) are now helping us to improve this usability evaluation protocol. We will hopefully be able to make it into a practical tool for engineers and others to better balance design criteria, ultimately enabling production of more stoves that are clean and effectively, efficiently meet cooks’ needs. The use of social science research methods was new to me, as an engineer, and helped me to understand many details about cooks’ lives and attitudes beyond usability that could not have been revealed without these in-depth interviews and surveys. I am currently working to have the protocol incorporated into the global ISO standard for cookstove design and evaluation. Next year, I hope to bring this usability evaluation to another part of the world to test the protocol in another culture and on different types of stoves.

Visitors from Ssembabule District in Uganda demonstrate the technology they created to crush charcoal after completing a CCB workshop. The resulting charcoal dust is then combined with a binder such as cassava, and used to make briquettes.

Creative Capacity Building at Kulika, Uganda

I am struck by the sight of everyone working, or “making” as it’s often called now. They are building with wood, metal, natural materials, and other random items thatthe project teams picked up in town yesterday.  What I see is that making is the place of everyone here, regardless of gender or age. I am immersed in a community-level design training model called Creative Capacity Building (CCB), developed largely by Amy Smith of MIT’s D-Lab and led here by her and Bernard Kiwia.

CCB is typically a 5-day hands-on workshop where participants learn the basic stages of the design cycle. They then put it into practice as they work in teams to go through at least one round of the design cycle and prototype a technology by the end of the 5 days.  There are several hands-on sessions where we build a maize sheller (exactly what it sounds like) and a charcoal press that can be used to form briquettes from charcoal dust; these activities are designed to teach a set of basic skills in wood working, metal working, and the use of various hand tools while also giving participants a useful technology to take home.

Training of Trainers

Generally, CCB training is offered by trainer(s) at a very local level as a mechanism for spurring and supporting local innovation. I’m using local to describe village- or community-scale. This particular CCB is unique in that it is a training of trainers (ToT). Most of us are not only acting as participants, meaning we work in teams and design and build prototypes, but we are also here with the intention of improving our facilitation abilities. As such, we have a program of group reflection and practice teaching that’s going on around the edges of the CCB. Our ToT is held at Kulika Uganda’s training center outside of Wakiso, Uganda. Most of these current or prospective trainers are individuals who are currently facilitating trainings elsewhere, hope to be a trainer/co-trainer in the future, or want to be otherwise involved with CCB activities. This week, the majority of current or prospective trainers are from Uganda because that’s where we are, but we also have people from several other African countries, several Central and South American countries, one Greek and a few from the U.S.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Creative Capacity Building

Over the last few years, I have been intentionally studying equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). I aspire to improve equity, diversity and inclusion at various levels within my own university which includes my day-to-day work environment. I’ve gained much more awareness of how interpersonal conversations, group dynamics, leadership, and policies can serve to either increase or decrease inclusivity.  What I see at this Creative Capacity Building (CCB) Training of Trainers is in fact a striking model of inclusion. The visceral sense of everyone working and everyone being equally valued regardless of race, gender, status, and level of education, is not unique to CCB; I have also seen it and lived it at longer hands-on design summits that, like CCB, are also associated with MIT’s D-Lab and the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN).

Usually, because a CCB training is such a local event, it would not have the diversity in nationalities that we have at this event, but it would have both women and men. In cultures where there are deeply rooted gender roles, women are not often encouraged to be on equal footing with the men as “makers”. But in a CCB training, full participation is simply expected from both genders. Preliminary studies of impact do show that CCB training can raise womens’ profiles as women take on greater leadership responsibilities or design and use technologies that reduce their labor, increase their income, or simply make life better

Creating First Prototypes

This week, we had about 10 community members who live nearby join our CCB training of trainers. Thus, our project teams had both trainers and local community members. Our teams produced prototypes of a solar dryer, a vegetable slicer, a sorghum thresher, a hands-free latrine cover, a passion fruit juicer and a few others. I confess to not believing what could be envisioned and built in just a few days; all the teams had a somewhat working prototype by the end of the five days. Most of our concepts went through an iteration or two, and we even had a chance to get feedback from the type of person who might use our technologies through both internal and external showcases with our project prototypes.

Impact of Creative Capacity Building on Local Innovation

We learn by experience that the design process requires faith. Not religious faith, but rather faith that applying the design cycle to real-world problems will produce a solution or technology towards solving that problem. And faith that all individuals are capable of improving their lives through creativity and innovation. I’m very curious – what happens after a CCB training? Do people just walk away unchanged? Do they continue to innovate and build devices or technologies? I’m sure many do walk away, but this week we witnessed groups coming from all over Uganda to demonstrate and celebrate the technologies they created and iterated post-CCB. When I was looking over my pictures, the one commonality I saw during presentations from these visiting groups was a sense of pride.

I know that many of the people at our training of trainers (including the innovators that joined us from both near and far) have not had it easy. Design, or the use of design, can’t solve everything. But my takeaway from this week is that design and the use of it for local innovation is in fact having a very real impact on people’s lives. Many of us walk away with a personal challenge of how to use what they learned, including me. Now it’s our turn to accept and act on these intentions.

(Entry also posted on IDIN blog here).


My research in humanitarian engineering took me to Honduras this past April to field test a sensor system that monitors the impact and adoption rates of improved cookstoves. The sensor, called the Fuel, Usage and Emissions Logger (FUEL), measures household fuel and cookstove usage. It was the first test in a real-world setting, to ensure that the sensor functioned both in the elements (rain, humidity, etc) and that it would be accepted by households, as it requires a change in habit.

On my third day in Honduras, in a village of 23 households called El Eden, I went with a family to collect firewood. This particular family collects wood on a daily basis, although it’s common for families to go 2-3 times per week. The couple, an older man about 70 years old and his wife, had waited for me to arrive before they left. By that time it had reached mid-day and was close to 100 degrees. Normally they would go much earlier in the day when it was cooler.

I left with the man and a woman from another house. As we began our steep descent through tidy rows of coffee plants, two other women joined the group, both carrying bags to hold wood and machetes to cut it. I wore jeans and running sneakers, the women from El Eden wore skirts and rubber flip flops. After about 20 minutes of walking (a shorter trip than usual), we reached a clearing in the woods, and everyone used a machete to swing at thick branches on fallen trees. My translator and I had no machetes, so we tried to collect wood by hand but were mostly useless.

After each person had collected a large enough pile to fill a sack about 3 feet long by 2 feet wide, we sat in the shade. One of the women had dug up an edible plant, Santa Maria, to bring back for her garden. We ate some of that and talked for a while as I fumbled with my flimsy Spanish.

When it was time to return to the village, I offered to carry one of the women’s bags, wondering if I could even make it back the whole way. She complied, but didn’t seem to think that I could either! The women tied up the bags with rope or a shirt, and hoisted them up onto their heads. That seemed difficult to me so I tried the Santa Claus approach and slung the bag over my back. I then decided they were probably holding it over their heads for a reason, and eventually followed suit. I could barely balance the bag on my head, and could feel the weight compressing my neck and back. I trudged behind the others, arms aching but determined to make it to the top. After a decent amount of sweating and pain, I could finally see the corrugated metal rooftops that indicated that we were almost there. Reaching the houses, I was so tall that I kept banging into rooftops with the bag of wood, almost taking off a roof or two. I decided then to leave it to the people who knew better.

I was thrown into the reality of their lives- it had been easy to visit households and observe the peaceful-seeming cadence of life, but actively participating in firewood collection exposed me to the drastically less idyllic but essential tasks that people do to survive. It seemed to me, and makes sense, that people accept these tasks as a fact of life, but that does not mean that it isn’t still challenging. As one example, people in El Eden may have developed stronger muscles for carrying large loads (compared to me), but firewood collection can still cause hernias. Better understanding how households perceive these tasks will come with more time spent in the field, talking to and being with people to really understand how they view their lives and where the most pressing challenges lie.

It wasn’t until we were halfway back up the hill, sweating under the relentless sun, that I realized that this trip occurred during the hottest point in the day only because they had postponed collection to wait for me to arrive.  This is one of the trade-offs and privileges of having the positionality of a researcher that I have learned about in Anthropologic Research Design, and began to identify for myself, something I hope to mitigate in my future research. It seems like power dynamics have to be carefully navigated and leveled, and unintended consequences of research agendas need to be continually considered to minimize invasiveness, especially when it involves human life. I hope to continue to improve upon this through my past and future experiences as a researcher so I can begin to recognize and identify where these inequalities lie and avoid perpetuating them as we work together to identify and solve challenges.


In the Biological and Ecological Engineering Department, graduate students have the opportunity to participate in the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) with Professor John Selker. The project was started in the 90’s when Dr. Selker was in Ghana but the data just didn’t exist. TAHMO’s goal is to install weather stations to countries across Africa, providing weather data needed for research, weather predictions, crop monitoring, and extreme hazard warnings. This automatic weather station is powered by a small solar panel and measures wind speed, temperature, rain, pressure, GPS location, solar radiation, and lightning detection. Students advised under Dr. Selker work in station placement, quality control, and educational outreach with TAHMO.

In the winter of 2017, two students had the opportunity to travel to Benin to put their work into practice. The first student, Liz is a second year Water Resources Engineering Masters student. Liz is also the coordinator the School 2 School (S2S) project in TAHMO. The second student, Amelia, is a first year Masters student in Water Resources Engineering. Her research focuses on helping the TAHMO project develop a framework for choosing the best sites to install the weather stations.

Students in the Field- Liz

Most stations are hosted by schools across the region which allows schools access to the data collected. The intention is for teachers to use the real-time weather data from their station as applied science in their classroom.  Trainings are designed for science teachers come to learn about TAHMO and gain the skills and material to integrate the weather data into the curriculum. The first training was in the winter of 2016 in Kenya and was very successful. The second training was held in Benin at the SOS Village Orphanage in coordination with GLOBE program. Below is a picture of Liz hanging out with young students at the SOS Village Orphanage in Benin.

The first part of the training consisted of introductions of TAHMO and the S2S program. There were so many great questions about the weather station, including battery life, data transmission, data quality control and standards, calibration requirements, etc. It was a pleasure for Liz to be working with such involved and passionate teachers. 26 Teachers from all over Benin attended the 3-day training.

The second portion of the training included three group exercises focusing on using weather data in their classroom. The first exercise was drawing the weather station and labeling the sensors and describing corresponding measurements. The next activity explored the scientific process by explaining the relationship between two meteorological variables. The third activity was to build a cup style wind anemometers to measure the wind speed outside.  This is one of Liz’s favorite activities because it involves building a weather instrument, taking measurements, calculations, comparison to the TAHMO station measurement, and a great discussion about sources of error. The winning team whose cup style anemometer was most accurate when compared to the weather station reading won OSU caps.

Training evaluations done at the end of the course were extremely useful. First, they identified the part that teachers most valued were the lesson plans. Also, they noted that teachers wanted to go back to their schools and engage other teachers who were not able to attend this training. In response, Liz put together a teacher training “packet” for when stations are installed into schools. The welcome packet includes instructions for accessing the data on the S2S website, a list of required maintenance, examples for in-classroom exercises using the data, and a FAQ sheet. Liz hopes that this material will help teachers be successful at incorporating TAHMO data into their lesson plans. Ultimately she wants  the students to benefit from doing science that is applicable and local.

Students in the Field- Amelia

The following month after Liz’s return, Amelia traveled to West Africa to visit Benin, Togo, and Ghana. TAHMO is currently working in all three countries, but each is in a different stage of the station installation process. Amelia was able to follow up on some of the work initiated by Liz with the schools. Amelia traveled to 16 schools in Benin and met with teachers and administrators. At each school she gave them more information about TAHMO and to distribute the welcome pack created by Liz. She showed these schools how they can view and download the data online and how to access lesson plans.

Amelia’s research focuses on helping the TAHMO project develop a framework for choosing the best sites to install the weather stations. Sites are chosen so they represent the true weather, while taking into consideration social and political considerations. For example, agricultural areas may have a greater need for good precipitation data to plan their crops, and fishing areas may need advanced warning when storms are coming in so that fisherman can return to land and safety. Amelia seeks to find a balance between the sometimes competing objectives of collecting the best weather data overall and collecting it where it is most needed.

The main objective of Amelia’s visit was to develop a better understanding of the ground conditions where station installations are occurring so that she can incorporate local needs and constraints into the site selection process. Amelia worked closely with the meteorological agencies in these countries to understand their goals for the weather station network and reach a consensus of the selected station sites. She also documented the concerns of the school teachers and administrators about hosting these stations. Amelia and her team toured school campuses to discuss potential locations where we could install the weather stations and documented the common problems we had when searching for a suitable site. Her team was also able to complete 7 weather station installations during the visit, below are pictures from the  station installation at CEG Glazoué.

Amelia is writing a document detailing the information she learned during her visit about the social and political considerations relevant to weather station installation. She plans to compare a weather station network designed using traditional optimization methods to a network that incorporates social factors and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each.

How you can help!

A crowd-funding app has been created where every meter counts to improve weather data accuracy in Africa. Without these weather stations, there is no accurate weather information available in most places. Just download the free app on your phone, it even run in parallel with your other fitness trackers. A donation of $3 for every 5 km you run/walk and $5 is for every 30 km you bike will be donated to TAHMO!

Download the app here for Itunes and here for Andriod and bring accurate weather in Africa closer with each step.

For more information about TAHMO click here or watch our video here.