The Seed of an Idea - Exel: Drexel University's Research Magazine
 
 

_FEATURE

The Seed of an Idea
Engineering professor Alex Moseson is coming to the rescue of rice farmers in Thailand with simple tools for better harvests.

_Alex Moseson

Moseson is an assistant teaching professor in the College of Engineering and director of Drexel’s SEED Lab.

Farming can be backbreaking work. But must it be?

Five years ago in a remote, mountainous region of northern Thailand, Alex Moseson, then a Drexel doctoral candidate on a faith-based trip to the picturesque salt mine village of Bo Klua, “couldn’t help” but write a 56-page report on the sustainable development needs of the roughly 30,000 farmers in the area. He conducted informal interviews with everyone from village elders to mothers carrying their babies to understand the complexities of their lives, and how he, as an engineer, might be able to help.

The roots he planted on that trip sprouted into the SEED (Sustainable Engineering and Entrepreneurship for Development) Lab, which Moseson now directs from his position as an assistant teaching professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering. Armed with a new $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Moseson and his interdisciplinary Drexel students are poised to write the next chapter of a remarkable story that has connected two cultures from halfway around the world and could drastically improve the lives of a people who have farmed using basically the same methods for 700 years.

Seed Tool Graphic

THE_EVOLUTION

Moseson and his team completed their first prototype rice planter in 2011. Made with hand tools, it was a little rough around the edges. It damaged seeds, the seeds didn’t fall into the hole, and it was hard to fabricate. They built their second version in 2012 with some hand-held electric tools. It was too slow and required too much striking force. This year, they introduced their third prototype, pictured above, fabricated with bench-top electric tools. Currently in trials, it is the first version to meet all four P’s of sustainability: people, prosperity, planet and performance.

“Being able to leverage technology in a way that is transformative gets me excited,” says Moseson, who completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in materials engineering from Drexel in 2008 and finished his doctorate in mechanical engineering in 2012. “There is a shameful amount of technology that has already been invented and fully understood but not yet adapted or deployed to solve some of the world’s most serious problems.”

The SEED Lab is aiming to change that. In Thailand, Moseson learned that many of the subsistence rice farmers in the region suffer from chronic pain.

“Typically, for planting, one person has a long pole that they have screwed a crude iron pick onto,” he says. “On these very steep slopes, which can be literally up to 70 degrees, they jab at the ground in a random fashion, and somebody, usually a woman, follows behind to throw rice into the holes. This person is hunched over for many hours per day, and is getting kicked in the face and having rocks thrown into their face. It’s really a dangerous place to be.”

Moseson knew he could create a tool that would make farming easier, and when he returned to Philadelphia from that first trip, he resolved to act.

His project, originally known as the Thai Harvest Initiative, yielded a design for a planting device that used a PVC pipe to store rice seed, drill a hole in the ground, and drop 10 grains all in one motion.

One of the first students that he and the project’s first faculty adviser, Associate Professor James Tangorra, brought on board was Marie LaPosta. LaPosta, now a mechanical engineer with Amtrak, was looking for a senior design project (a requirement for Drexel engineering majors) with social impact because, as she says, “Engineering is powerful stuff, and the best sustainable engineering is invisible.”

They learned a lot from building their first prototype.

“The tool that we devised would not have been easy for a villager to design, both from a knowledge and a resources standpoint,” she says. “But once we incorporated local materials and local feedback into our design, it would be hard for an observer to know that the designers were outsiders.”

Not Just a Tool

NOT_JUST_A_TOOL

Top: The Drexel team, interpreters, and farmers work hand-in hand on version 1.0 of the planter.

 

Bottom: At an oversubscribed workshop by Drexel and the Sustainable Development Research Foundation, village leader Nung-ruthai Jaiboonruang uses a power tool for the first time to make her own weeder.

Collaboration is a key in the SEED Lab model. Despite major language, financial and geographical barriers, Moseson and his students know it is vital that any engineering solution be designed with, not simply for, the Thai farmers. Every year, he returns to Thailand with a group of undergraduates so that the original design of the tools can be adjusted to become more efficient and functional. Each group of undergraduates (all of whom volunteer their time) tries to improve on the previous group’s work. Other units across campus, including the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Film and Video; Graphic Design; and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, have contributed in some way.

Students are now working on the third iteration of the rice planter, trying to eliminate jamming (mud tends to get stuck in the device) and increase its efficiency.

“Basically, now we are able to strike the ground and just move along,” Moseson says. “It does everything in one motion. When you’re striking the ground, you’re no longer just drilling a hole, you’re now putting the right number of seeds in it. This means that one person can do the work of two or three.”

That’s important because the planting season is dependent on annual rains and villagers sometimes only have two short, stressful weeks to plant an entire crop.

The farmers weed the land for much longer periods of time — for several months they work on this laborious task for up to 10 hours each day. So Drexel engineers went back to the drawing board to create a new weeder.

After trying several designs, they settled on a PVC-based pole with a custom-made blade and aiming device that allows the user to gently lay it down where he wants to strike the weed, and then push just once.

“You get both accuracy and power, plus the better ergonomics of standing upright,” Moseson says.

Until now, the SEED Lab’s economic model of distributing the tools has been to hold workshops in conjunction with its Thailand-based partner, the Sustainable Development Research Foundation (SDRF). During the events, farmers come and construct their own tools. This process has, in many ways, empowered the farmers, says James Gustafson, the foundation’s director of international relations.

“We’re not just there to transfer technology, we’re there to transfer ideas, in both directions. Our main deliverables are not just the devices, but pictorial manuals that have been translated into Thai so that the people can understand them. It’s an opportunity for teaching, not just selling or giving away a product.”

– Alex Moseson, director, SEED Lab

“The project has had a growing impact on the Thai farmers in the province of Nan where the SDRF works,” he says. “It began by stimulating their creativity as it invited them to participate in a workshop to design an appropriate weeder and mountain rice planter. It also provided the farmers with an opportunity to learn from the Drexel teams that visited and helped in the workshops on the design and manufacture of the tools.”
 
Gustafson credits the sensitivity of Moseson and his team as being key to getting local farmers to participate.

“Alex and the Drexel teams included the farmers in the whole process of design and manufacture, which affirmed the farmers in a way that opened them up to the potential of working together,” Gustafson says.

“Research knowledge and indigenous knowledge were mutually involved in the process of design and manufacture. A sense of balance has dominated the interaction between Drexel and the indigenous farmers.”

Indeed, time and time again when discussing the project, Moseson returns to the theme of collaboration.

“We’re not just there to transfer technology, we’re there to transfer ideas, in both directions,” he says. “Our main deliverables are not just the devices, but pictorial manuals that have been translated into Thai so that the people can understand them. It’s an opportunity for teaching, not just selling or giving away a product.”

In November, the SEED Lab became one of roughly 80 winners of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Exploration Grants. Only about 2 percent of applicants are awarded the prize, Moseson says.

The SEED Lab team will use the grant to establish a local social entrepreneurship center to produce 50 tools per day.

“There are 100 million sloped-field farmers in Southeast Asia alone who could see their quality of life improved by these tools,” he says. “Putting the tools in the hands of so many others is a very exciting possibility.”

In the meantime, Moseson and his team are tweaking the tool designs and continuing work on a third aspect of the project — producing a clean water filter.

“Both projects have their own challenges,” says Sukitta Oumcomesung, a senior undergraduate member of the water filter and planter tool design teams, and a native of Thailand. “The groups are currently in designing and experimenting processes to see which are the suitable solutions. I hope I can help. These two projects are not only to help just people in Thailand, but also others who are facing similar issues in the rest of the world.”

Seed Circle Illustrations

OUT_WITH_THE_COLD

For 700 years, the people of Bo Klua in Thailand have cultivated rice by hand on steep, rocky slopes, using a two-person method that results in chronic pain. The tool created by Drexel engineers with constant input from village farmers relies on local, affordable materials and simple design.

Moseson traces his devotion to sustainable engineering back to some work he did in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He also credits his graduate adviser, Michel Barsoum, now the A.W. Grosvenor Professor in the Department of Materials and Science Engineering, for helping to make this path in life possible for him. Moseson now devotes much of his professional energy toward the project in Thailand.

“This type of work really motivates me to get up in the morning,” he says. “In an age — this is going to sound cliché — where we can put a man on the moon, there’s no technical reason that people should be without food, water, shelter, sanitation, the basics of life. With that in mind I have found that it’s a real honor for me to be allowed to pursue what I see as my calling. It’s been a way to validate my path toward trying to serve some of the most deserving people in the world with technology.”

In doing so, he’s set a course for his students to follow. LaPosta, for one, says her time on the project gave her hope.

“It made me feel that I, as an engineer, can be an agent of positive change by using my skills in the right way,” she says. “Before going [to Thailand], I didn’t think I truly believed that our tool would be what they needed, or make an impact on their lives. The reality was very different. I saw that what we made was helpful to people where even a little help makes a big difference. I saw that they valued what we made, and it would be useful to them, and I wanted to do that again in my life.”

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