CGI U@Duke Stories: Karishma Popli, T’16

Lighting the Future with Technology: Global Engineering Modules to Promote Girls in STEM

Karishma conducting her SOL project evaluation at Haveli School in Rajasthan, India (2013)

My previous independent research through Duke University’s SOL Hart Leadership Program shows solar lamps are an important and useful introduction in rural village schools to help students study effectively at night when there is no electricity in off-grid communities, but a major issue I confronted was being able to repair the solar lamps, replace parts, or simply having the students understand the science behind how solar lamps work. I found that once girls enrolled in high school, they were no longer exposed to a science curriculum because there was no inherent need to provide girls with a more advanced knowledge of STEM or the harmful effects of climate change on the environment since they were not encouraged to pursue higher studies or careers.

The goal of my CGI U Commitment to Action is to provide girls in rural village schools with the skills and tools necessary to learn about sustainable technologies and how to create their own renewable energy flashlights, as well as build other products made from natural resources commonly found in their community. This will foster the students’ intellectual curiosity and introduce science and engineering concepts to engage girls in critical thinking and empower them to follow their interests and achieve their goals in STEM studies. It will also provide valuable resources for these students to study effectively at night and help them accomplish other tasks. I was recently selected to represent Duke at the Clinton Global Initiative University and present my project at this year’s Education Exchange Forum with over 1200 attendees.

I am currently working as a Fellow under the mentorship of Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, Director of Duke University’s Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies, to design and develop a prototype engineering toolbox kit and educational modules to teach girls at rural village schools how to build their own renewable flashlights and instill important scientific skills which hopefully encourage them to pursue STEM-related engineering fields, which they are often not exposed to due to social and cultural norms for women. This semester, I am also teaching DukeEngage: India-Kolkata students how to build a renewable energy flashlight in resource-poor settings which they will take to India this summer. The toolbox will have a list of parts and step-by-step instructions for how to assemble a flashlight using various renewable energy powering sources.  I will also prepare a flashlight-engineering curriculum for the DE Kolkata students to teach students at the Tulipdale School and at the Future Hope Orphanage in Kolkata.

By teaching girls in rural village schools about the engineering behind the innovative technology of solar energy and the science of photovoltaics, I hope to empower young women with the confidence, knowledge and ability to become economically self sustainable within their communities.  Last year, I enrolled in BME 290-Women’s Health Technologies taught by Professor Ramanujam, to fulfill an elective for my Global Health co-major. As a double major in Neuroscience and Global Health, I learned that anyone can be an engineer with the proper guidance, confidence and determination to succeed. With Professor Ramanujam’s encouragement, I created my own alternative energy flashlight in her class which was given to girls at Duke’s WISER school in the rural village of Muhuru Bay, Kenya so they can study effectively at night since they have no access to consistent electricity.

Unfortunately, I have found that people do not fully understand the importance of bringing solar technology to rural villages and the impact it makes on the environment and health of students, which is why I wanted to start this project at Duke to teach people in both the U.S. and around the world in rural villages about sustainable, renewable energy sources. I have learned that simply teaching people to become environmentally conscious and learn about solar technology can make a huge difference in the world. I have served as a Global Ambassador with the U.S. based non-profit, One Million Lights since 2009 to educate people around the world about the benefits of solar lamp use.

I currently participate in Duke’s Bass Connections project evaluation for Scaling Innovative Healthcare Delivery in East Africa under the mentorship of DGHI, Fuqua and Duke Medical School faculty. I have an interest in scalability and entrepreneurship and worked with a Washington, D.C. non-profit on healthcare innovation in rural villages in India. I serve as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke which promotes innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives for students at our school. This CGIU Commitment to Action project has an impact on health outcomes since it provides an alternative to harmful kerosene oil lamps which are commonly used in rural villages. Sustainable flashlights can be used by rural healthcare workers in community clinics or in mobile healthcare delivery systems. More importantly, once the educational model proves successful in rural village schools, it can be scaled to other resource poor communities.

I believe it is the social responsibility of educated people to help educate those less fortunate and confined by rural impediments. By teaching students how to harness renewable resources commonly found in their communities and training them with entrepreneurship models, I hope that girls in rural villages will become empowered to pursue STEM related fields and remain economically self-sustainable.

Through support from Duke’s Office of Civic Engagement, I hope to establish a model for providing more students in resource poor settings with the opportunity to learn what I have from American philosopher John Dewey, “Education is not just preparation for life, it is life itself!”