Mirror Makerspaces, An Ocean Away

3/24/21 Duke BME Magazine

Duke First-Year Design students partner with engineers at Makerere University in Uganda to create twin work spaces out of shipping containers

student team in front of shipping container makerspace
Mirror Makerspaces, An Ocean Away

At first glance, a shipping container doesn’t seem like an ideal place to get work done. The extended length of the crate makes for an awkward, tunnel-like layout, and the need for lights and electricity to operate tools makes an external power source an inconvenient necessity. But despite these challenges, Ann Saterbak believes they’ll make an ideal design space for engineers.

Saterbak, professor of the practice in biomedical engineering, teaches the Pratt School of Engineering’s First-Year Design course, where teams of freshmen spend up to two semesters prototyping design projects for community partners across Duke, Durham and beyond. In the three years since the program’s inception, students have completed projects including a device to feed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, a bridge that can withstand major weather events and a realistic arm model that helps nursing students practice IV-line insertion.

Now, Saterbak is helping two teams of students turn an abandoned shipping container into a functional workspace where engineers can design and prototype various inventions, all while using tools that are practical, affordable and widely accessible in low-income environments. The project was planned with engineering partners at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where students lacked a proper design workspace.

As students at Duke make modifications to their container, they’re also collaborating with engineering faculty at Makerere to duplicate their efforts and create a ‘twin’ workspace in a container in Uganda.

“The idea was that we needed to create an affordable makerspace, and we needed to create something that Makerere could easily duplicate,” says Saterbak. “We decided to use shipping containers because there are so many of them in Uganda, and they are readily available to use. They are also commonly converted into other things, including businesses and restaurants, so a design space wasn’t a stretch of the imagination.”

The project marks the evolution of the years-long partnership between Duke Biomedical Engineering and Makerere University. Developed by William (Monty) Reichert, professor emeritus of Duke BME, the partnership was created to encourage biomedical engineering students to approach engineering problems with cost-efficient and practical solutions for resource-limited settings. Since the program’s launch in 2014, six students from Makerere have also come to Duke to earn master’s degrees in BME before returning to Uganda as BME instructors.

After pitching the shipping container idea to various organizations, Saterbak eventually received a $30,000 grant from VentureWell to pursue the project. Two teams signed on to the project in Fall 2019 and were immediately challenged to think about how to find materials and tools to create a fully functioning design space in a resource-limited setting.

Students hang up a white board in the container
Students hang up a white board in the container

“Part of my motivation for offering this project in EGR 101 was actually due to frustration,” says Saterbak. “When we would assign students projects for resource-limited communities, we tried to get them to think about how they would make tools or devices with resources that would be available in those communities. But students would still make prototypes that included something that was 3D-printed or a piece of material that you couldn’t find or procure in a low-income area.

“Moving forward, Duke EGR 101 teams with projects that are designed to be used in a low-income area will have to work in the shipping container to iteratively prototype their project.”

One team was assigned to set up the basic workspace in the container, finding thrift-store tables and chairs that were both affordable and functional. They also worked with a carpenter to learn how to make wooden bookshelves for tool storage. A second team spent the semester exploring potential power source ideas, eventually deciding to install solar panels on the container’s roof.

“Building in the space was definitely a reality check,” says Aidan McCurry, one of the first-year students working on the interior of the container. “It took a while to get used to physically building in the space, which was challenging because of the awkward layout. And we were constantly corresponding with the Makerere teams to make sure all of our ideas, like the bookshelves and solar panels, were practical.”

Saterbak also included the visiting Makerere scholars in the process, appointing Solomon Oshabaheebwa as a teacher’s assistant for the First Year Design course, where he helped with various projects including the storage container.

The solar panels on top of the shipping container
The solar panels on top of the shipping container

“I certainly had more of a personal connection with the storage container project,” says Oshabaheebwa. “We don’t have a dedicated design space at Makerere, and students will sometimes work in classrooms or even in their dorm rooms. I was able to give the Duke students a firsthand perspective about what our needs were, and how we’d work around problems when specific tools or things like laser cutters or 3D printers aren’t available.

“I also think that the TA experience was really helpful to me, as I got more comfortable in a teaching-type role during the semester, and that will be useful when I go back to Makerere as a BME instructor,” he says.

Engineering is always a work in progress
Engineering is always a work in progress

In a previous Duke-Makerere design course, students prototyped a variety of projects with their Makerere counterparts, including a LED-lined crib to treat infants with jaundice, a cooled backpack to help with vaccine transport and an oxygen flowmeter that can help deliver oxygen to multiple neonates in a single ward. With the new workspace, Saterbak is optimistic that engineering students will be able to continue creating practical biomedical tools despite technological limitations.

“I had always been interested in global health, and I’d previously taken a medical device design course, so this project really grabbed my attention,” says Katherine Drinkwater, a MEMS student involved with the project. “It was exciting to be involved in a project that will have a direct influence on a community that needs it.”

Finalizing the furniture, tools and materials was initially slated to wrap up in the spring of 2020, but when the coronavirus pandemic forced classes to go remote in late March, that timeline changed.

“The team really faced an unprecedented challenge, so I was impressed that they were able to move forward with their project virtually,” says Saterbak. “They were able to coordinate with some of the teaching assistants to slowly plan and complete the layout and design for the inside of the container, and they were able to hit the ground running when they could safely return to campus the following fall.”

In addition to completing the interior work during the summer and fall of 2020, a few new teams were able to join the project, where they worked on adding the solar panels to the container’s roof and a retractable awning to create a shaded outdoor design space.

The retractable awning will allow the engineers to expand their covered design space.
The retractable awning will allow the engineers to expand their covered design space.

Beyond the design additions, the team was also invited to participate in the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge, where they were one of two Duke teams to be named Global Finalists and were invited to the virtual finals in June of 2020.

“The competition was a great experience for us to examine the impact of our makerspace on people outside of Duke and imagine what we’d like the project to grow into in the future,” says Drinkwater.

With the container nearly complete, the design teams will now test the efficacy of the space by designing a light-therapy device to treat newborns with jaundice. Saterbak has also been approached by two Duke Bass Connections teams who would like to use the container to create projects of their own.

“This project was really exciting because it can have a positive impact on a lot of different fields, like engineering, global health and environmental health, and it’s a relatively easy solution to a longstanding problem,” says Saterbak. “My big goal is that if this is successful then we’ve essentially created a prototype that can be easily replicated in resource-limited settings across the globe, and that’s an exciting prospect.”

More about the First-Year Design program »

Spring 2021 Duke BME Magazine