Ignite Helps Students Illuminate—and Solve—Problems in Their Own Community

5/8/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Once an international outreach program, Ignite helps local middle and high school students become community-minded engineers

Students from the Ignite program pose with director Megan Madonna
Ignite Helps Students Illuminate—and Solve—Problems in Their Own Community

When Megan Madonna took over the Ignite program in 2020, the world was rapidly transforming into a different place.  

“Duke undergraduates were not about to get on planes and travel internationally,” she said. “Nobody was.”

But this posed a problem for Ignite––an outreach program developed by Duke University’s Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies. Launched in 2014 by Nimmi Ramanujam, the Robert W. Carr Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke, Ignite was initially developed as an international educational program that helped middle school and high school students use engineering to help their local community.

Based on the idea of human-centered design, the Ignite curriculum shows students how they could engage with their community to better understand local needs and problems. Using the UN Sustainable Development Goals for guidance, the students work together to brainstorm solutions, develop a prototype and then iterate the design based on feedback. In the six years since its creation, more than 2,500 students across Guatemala, Kenya and India had participated in program.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic put their international students out of reach, Madonna, an assistant research professor in Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, recognized an opportunity to help a community much closer to home.

“At the time, the international sites were getting very self-sufficient, and the local students were running the program, which is always the end goal,” said Madonna. “My goal was always to develop a local branch of Ignite, and despite the circumstances, it ended up being the right time.”

Ignite participants work to construct low-cost water filters and microscopes to both clean and monitor local water sources.

Working with David Knudsen, an associate program manager on the Museum of Life and Science’s Education and Engagement Team, Madonna organized a pilot program that consisted of 20 Durham middle school students. For two days over the summer of 2021, the participants learned how to use engineering skills to prototype small devices.

“It was the first in-person program the museum had organized since the pandemic,” said Madonna. “It was very cute, and we learned a lot about what the students like and how we could bring this international program home.”

Madonna and her team officially relaunched Ignite in the spring of 2022, creating a new curriculum that serves middle and high school students across Durham and focuses on North-Carolina-specific engineering challenges. The local iteration involves three key components: Ignite Learners, Ignite Makers and Ignite Entrepreneurs. Undergraduate students at Duke, called Trainers, work with Madonna as near-peers to help teach engineering skills and guide the projects.

During the Learner’s program, which runs for eight weeks in the spring, middle school students meet both virtually and in-person at either the Museum of Life and Science or at Duke, where they work with Duke undergraduate students to create a prototype that solves a problem relating to the UN Global Goals of clean energy, clean water or good health. The clean energy prototyping courses center around light, and students learn electrical engineering concepts to create a portable light source. Should students decide to work on clean water, they learn about civil engineering and create either a microscope or a water filter. Health team students learn more about biomedical engineering concepts and build pulse oximeters.

In the year-long Makers program, high school students will also choose to solve a problem relating to light, water or health, but rather than limit the students to specific designs, participants are challenged to go into the community and identify a problem they’d like to work on. Past projects have included a biking prosthetic for leg prosthesis patients, a smoke detector that recognizes secondhand smoke and a cooling vest. One project, a device that can recycle greywater for hydroponic agriculture, was so successful the team placed fourth in the world at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Ignite participants work on their prototypes in the TinkerLab at the Museum of Life and Science.

Should Makers students return to Ignite for another year, they have the opportunity to either start a different project or join Ignite Entrepreneurs, which allows them to continue working on their initial project and improve on their design. All programs culminate with “Duke Day,” a science fair-style event where students can display their projects for their families, Duke students, and even a panel of Museum and Duke faculty and staff.

Since relaunching the program in 2021, Madonna and her team have worked with nearly 200 students through Ignite, and it has only grown in popularity. They’ve also collaborated with a Bass Connections team at Duke to optimize the program to ensure that it continues to resonate with the participating students.

“We started this program as a way to recruit really motivated and creative people into engineering,” said Madonna. “We think these programs help students who otherwise wouldn’t see themselves as engineers create really exciting solutions for problems they actually care about, and I think that’s a really cool way to be introduced to engineering.”