There’s nothing like a truly big problem to get an engineering student excited. But the definition of “big” has changed. Big used to mean the Hoover Dam. Now big means hydra-headed global problems like climate change. 

Tackling even one aspect of climate change is a major undertaking. But that didn’t stop Stephen Ho, a UC Merced undergraduate engineering student, and his fellow students from taking on the challenge of designing a solar energy system to replace diesel engines on cargo ships. 

How big is the problem of cargo ship pollution? Two years ago, maritime industry insiders leaked a study showing that just 15 of the world’s biggest cargo ships may emit as much pollution at all of the world’s cars. 

“It started out as a contest,” Ho said. “The national chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World offered a competition funded by MEMC/SunEdison to all the chapters. We submitted a proposal, and we got the funding.” 

The students used their grant money to do research in the real world. Their visit to Canada Steamship Lines at the Redwood City, Calif. port made them realize how precious space was, even on the largest cargo ships. Their initial design had included photovoltaic panels that looked like sails aboard an enormous ship, but after they talked to shipping executives and crew members, they realized that would take up too much precious space. 

Their current design calls for a photovoltaic panel on a hinge that can be opened in clement weather and stored when there’s a storm — and which doesn’t take up space on an already crowded ship.

Other students are taking on smaller scale projects, both in the U.S. and abroad, that could have a more direct effect on people’s lives. (See main story.) Their project sites range from central California to India, but what’s striking is not their differences, but their similarities. Engineering students are starting from the ground up, re-examining ways to deliver the basic necessities for development: electricity and water.

For example, not far from Merced, undergraduate engineering students are researching ways to use solar energy to supply clean water to small Central Valley communities where agricultural runoff has contaminated groundwater and drinking water must be trucked in. 

Engineering graduate student Brandi McKuin spent part of her spring semester looking at equally innovative way to provide electricity to villages in India. This was the second trip McKuin made to the Guna district of the Indian state of Madya Pradesh, working on a project funded by the Sun Edison company. Madhya Pradesh is called ‘the heart of India’ yet the Indian government has announced that there are no plans to provide electricity to the region’s rural areas.

In contrast to the way engineers used to operate, McKuin didn’t merely ask questions about concrete or metal. She looked at sustainability metrics, quantifying how a solar electrification project could reduce greenhouse gases while improving people’s lives and livelihoods. Her questions had as much to do with people and economics as they did with power generation. What kind of businesses would people start if they had a reliable course of electricity? How would a steady power supply affect the education of children? 

“In India, even some villages that have electricity only have it an hour a day, or less,” McKuin said. “But India is industrializing and eventually they’re going to want all the luxuries Americans have, so it’s a critical time to look at how we can curb the carbon footprint of this development before it happens. If we can make a contribution there, it would really be big.”