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Solving Global Issues through Empathetic Technological Design

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Professor inspires students to change the world using empathy and innovation

Undergraduate life can be tough — What should I major in? When is my project due? How much does my lunch cost?

Professor Komal Magsi instructs EST 205: Intro to Technological Design.
Professor Komal Magsi instructs EST 205: Intro to Technological Design.

As challenging as college can be, some of our students are inventing strong solutions to major global issues like malnutrition, poverty and water scarcity before ever leaving the Stony Brook campus.

Welcome to EST 205: Introduction to Technological Design, part of the Department of Technology and Society (T&S) in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“My course teaches students the basics of design ideation, prototype development and testing,” said Professor Komal Magsi. “But my goal is to help students develop solutions to problems for people in dire need.”

By applying concepts and tools drawn from natural and social sciences, and engineering, T&S courses encourage students to examine and enhance the relationship between technology and our global society.

Before heading to the drawing board, Magsi’s students team up to identify a serious global problem and empathize with the people affected by it.

“Empathizing deeply with individuals in dire need truly changes the design equation,” said Magsi. “Looking at technology through the lens of others allows for more creative and comprehensive problem solving.”

[pullquote]”If you’re not doing anything to change the world, then what are you doing?”[/pullquote]

While sympathy may show compassion, empathy inspires change. When Magsi’s students imagine themselves experiencing the big problems people face in other parts of the world, some incredible ideas are born.

One student group designed an Aerogel-lined inflatable baby carrier for working mothers in Africa, which would alleviate back pain and better support and protect growing infants in hot climates affordably, while maintaining the strong African tradition of carrying babies on one’s back.

Another group designed an all-in-one sustainable crop planting kit that would provide people facing malnutrition and poverty in Angola a reliable way to grow their own nutritious food, even in poor soil conditions.

Student Natalie Korba '19 shows an early prototype of her group's project.
Natalie Korba ’19 shows an early prototype of her group’s project.

And another group designed a portable, hourglass-shaped water filter that would allow people facing poor sanitation conditions and water scarcity in Bolivia to safely reuse a small amount of water over a long period of time for personal hygiene.

There’s a lot to consider when empathizing with another culture’s major problems, as journalism student Natalie Korba ‘19 explained her group’s approach.

“Bolivians don’t have a lot of water, and when they have it, they want to drink it, and they don’t focus on washing their hands,” said Korba. “This leads to the spread of diseases, which leads to a high mortality rate among young children.”

Korba’s group was inspired by one student’s friend in Bolivia who explained these problems personally.

“When we heard how many children are sick, in hospitals, and lack the water to wash their hands, we really empathized with them, which is a big part of the design process,” said Korba.

Empathy helps students design solutions that are considerate and practical as much as they are innovative.

“People often focus on filtering water for drinking, but not for preventing the spread of germs,” explained Korba. “To solve this, doctors are sent into communities and facilities are constructed. Our product is a simpler, more affordable way to provide proper sanitation, and it hasn’t been implemented yet.”

Such innovation is amplified by the interdisciplinary nature of the course and its students. In one semester alone, students majoring in English, journalism, psychology, biology, computer science, business and engineering joined forces. Since EST 205: Introduction to Technological Design satisfies an undergraduate technical elective requirement, any undergrad can register for this course.

“Stony Brook University provides me with the platform to teach this course whereby students from a variety of perspectives are empowered to think about some of the greatest issues facing our global society, and solve them through technology for social good,” said Magsi.

Kaydon Davis '17 shows prototype results to faculty judges during an in-class presentation.
Kaydon Davis ’17 shows prototype results to faculty judges during an in-class presentation.

Gaining recognition for their designs is a big plus for students. Last year, business management student Ariel Martinez ‘17 worked with his group to design a vest called “H2O Go,” to help people in Kenya easily collect, transport and filter water while keeping them cool in a hot climate.

“I was so impressed with their product that I nominated the students to compete in the College of Business Pitch Wars competition, where they won first place in the ‘Technology for Social Good’ category,” said Magsi.

First place wasn’t the only recognition Martinez’s group received for their design.

“One of the judges was the head of the Kenyan Water Project. He told me it’s a great idea that he wants to support,” said Martinez. “We knew we had something on our hands, but we didn’t know how to bring it to fruition. With the support of someone outside Stony Brook, someone actually working in the field, it’s an incredible feeling.”

Personal recognition aside, it seems most students in Magsi’s class have one main priority — to make the world a better place.

“When you’re in the public eye as someone like a journalist, it’s very important to make an impact,” said Korba. “If you’re not doing anything to change the world, then what are you doing?”

Magsi’s students won’t hesitate to tell you how important this course is, and that she’s the right professor for the job.

“Classes like Professor Magsi’s should be mandatory, because it teaches you how to think for yourself, and how to develop something that can change the world,” said technological systems management student Kaydon Davis ‘17. “I believe that it would solve a lot if you had classes like this taught earlier to everybody, regardless of their majors.”


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