Soap-Making Process Improvement: Including Social, Cultural and Resource Constraints in the Engineering Design Process

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Grace Burleson
Brian Butcher
Brianna Goodwin
Kendra Sharp
Bonnie Ruder


The engineering profession is increasingly recognizing that engineers’ abilities to utilize a systems perspective and collaborate on multidisciplinary teams are critical professional competencies required to solve contemporary engineering challenges. Understanding context, including but not limited to social and cultural context, is one aspect of systems thinking that is important to effective problem-solving, yet such training is not yet standard in our engineering curricula. Humanitarian engineering-related capstone design projects offer both hands-on and field opportunities to integrate social and cultural appropriateness into a formal engineering design curriculum. Over the 2015-2016 academic year, Oregon State University offered a capstone project aimed at optimizing and implementing an improved soap-making process for TERREWODE, a non-governmental organization in Uganda. The ultimate goal of this soap-making project was to expand income-generating opportunities for victims and survivors of obstetric fistula. The project consisted of a six-month, on-campus design phase and a three-week field implementation and research trip in Soroti, Uganda. Six Social Justice (SJ) criteria were used in assessing project context and developing design requirements. Throughout the design phase, experimental testing drove the majority of design decisions. During field implementation and research, the three-student capstone design team worked closely with TERREWODE and their members to optimize the process, understand cultural conditions, and recommend options for potential local solar power systems.

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Author Biographies

Grace Burleson, Oregon State University

HBS Mechanical Engineering

Brian Butcher, Oregon State University

BS Mechanical Engineering

Brianna Goodwin, Oregon State University

BS Mechanical Engineering

Kendra Sharp, Oregon State University

Professor, Humanitarian Engineering

Bonnie Ruder, Oregon State University

PhD Candidate, Applied Anthropology