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SMU faculty, students to help UNHCR clean up refugee camp water

The search for solutions to dangerous water quality issues in refugee camps is driving an SMU lab group’s partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. SMU faculty and students will work in the lab and on the ground in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia and Bangladesh.

The group will integrate information from other sources to develop a database that will help UNHCR planners provide safer drinking water in existing and future refugee camps.

Supported by a $270,000 grant from UNHCR and additional SMU funds, faculty member Andrew Quicksall and his graduate students in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering are collecting water samples in UNHCR camps, bringing samples back to SMU for analysis and also training workers in and around the refugee camps to test water supplies.

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“They’ve asked us to build out a whole picture, truly worldwide, for what’s in the drinking water in refugee camps,” said Quicksall, the J. Lindsay Embrey Trustee Assistant Professor in the Lyle School of Engineering. “So we’re going to go on-site, collect water, analyze some in the field and bring quite a bit of water back to our SMU laboratories and get a full picture.”

Database to identify contaminants in camps with half a million people
The database developed by Quicksall’s group will identify contaminants in drinking water and allow UNHCR officials to track water quality in the camps over time. Some water quality problems are indigenous to the regions where the camps are situated, some develop over time, and some are the nearly instant consequence of thousands of people collecting in unsuitable locations to escape war and famine faster than sanitary infrastructure can be built.

For example, the agreement with UNHCR commits Quicksall’s team to investigate critical water issues in Dadaab, Kenya ̵ home to the largest refugee complex in the world. Nearly half a million people are concentrated in three camps there, many living in makeshift shelters of twigs, reeds and scraps. Refugees pouring across the border to escape war and famine in Somalia continue to face shortages of food, water, shelter and sanitation hazards there.

“The technical challenges of supporting refugee populations of this size will require that our teams stay engaged with the UNHCR for years to come,” said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the SMU Lyle School of Engineering. “Fortunately, our new Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity makes it possible to lead efforts of this magnitude nearly anywhere on the globe.”

Research to investigate solutions to safe but unpalatable drinking water
Some camps have safe drinking water available, but the taste is so off-putting that residents seek out other sources. In Nakivale, Uganda, for example, the high iron content in well water drives refugees to drink surface water that is frequently contaminated with coliform bacteria. Quicksall’s group also will investigate methods of improving the taste of such safe, but unpalatable, drinking water.

Preliminary research results have revealed problematic concentrations of iodide in drinking water at Dadaab and fluoride in both Southern Uganda and Kakukma, Kenya. Some types of contaminants may not create problems short-term, Quicksall explains, but create severe health issues for people over the long term — particularly children and the elderly. His study group will have the opportunity to both recommend and implement remediation methods for those problem water sources, he said.

“To work with the science in the lab and see it applied internationally — I don’t think there is an opportunity like this anywhere else,” said graduate student Drew Aleto, a member of Quicksall’s study team.

UNHCR and the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity at SMU have signed an agreement establishing a framework for increasing the role of engineering and innovation in support of refugee camp operations. This agreement calls for the engagement of universities, government-run research institutes and corporations to address technical and infrastructure issues faced by UNHCR in helping refugees in relation to water, sanitation, shelter, communications and health care. — Kimberly Cobb

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Lockheed Skunk Works® chief to lead-off SMU lecture series

Innovation is a tough concept to define and even harder to teach. But Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works®, where the fastest military jets are born in secret, is sharing its name and formula for innovation with Southern Methodist University’s Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering.

Frank Cappuccio, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and Skunk Works® director, will deliver the program’s inaugural lecture at 3:30 p.m. March 18 in the Hughes Trigg Student Center Theater on the SMU campus. Cappuccio will be speaking on “Creating an Environment for Innovation” to mark the beginning of this unique partnership.

The SMU/Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® Program is the first university program anywhere to teach the storied approach to problem solving behind aviation marvels like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. SMU students will not design airplanes — but they will learn the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® method of tackling daunting problems in small teams under high-pressure deadlines. The program is part of Lyle School’s Caruth Institute for Engineering Education.

Every SMU engineering graduate will experience the Skunk Works® program, starting with the incorporation of philosophy and case studies in undergraduate coursework. Lockheed Martin will rotate Skunk Works® engineers through the SMU program as visiting mentors and lecturers.

The best student opportunities for learning engineering innovation will come from varying degrees of immersion into Skunk Works® lab research. Those projects will last anywhere from a week or two between terms to an intensive, semester-long assignment for senior-level students working on a challenging problem.

As part of its ongoing mission to strengthen American engineering education at every level, the Lyle School will develop curriculum from the Skunk Works® experience that can be applied at other universities.


The Caruth Institute for Engineering Education, under the leadership of former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Delores Etter, already is home to nationally recognized programs to prepare middle school and high school students for engineering education and careers.

“We are committed to improving American engineering education,” Etter said. “You don’t do this with little steps — you do this with big steps.”

Lockheed targets 50 percent of its philanthropic work and outreach to support education, and Cappuccio is bullish on attracting the brightest students back to the industry that was perceived as so glamorous during the early space race. As a group, he says, engineers need to be less wedded to process and structure.


“What we want to do is apply the philosophy of the Skunk Works®, which is imbedded in founder Kelly Johnson’s 14 different principles,” said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the Lyle School. “The key is doing things quickly. In today’s world doing things quickly is very important. If you take too long, you lose out.”

SMU’s Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering, founded in 1925, is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest. The school offers eight undergraduate and 29 graduate programs, including both master’s and doctoral levels. — Kim Cobb

Related links:
DMN: Lyle changing face of SMU engineering
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works&#174
Kelly Johnson’s 14 different principles
Delores Etter
Caruth Institute for Engineering Education
Geoffrey Orsak
Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering

Researcher news Technology

SMU engineering to collaborate on US DOD research

The Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University will serve as a designated research collaborator in the Systems Engineering Research Center, or SERC, the first University Affiliated Research Center funded by the Department of Defense to focus on challenging systems engineering issues facing the defense department and related defense industries.


SMU Lyle School of Engineering, with Jerrell Stracener as lead senior researcher, will participate as part of a prestigious consortium of 18-leading collaborator universities and research centers throughout the United States, led by Stevens Institute of Technology, with the University of Southern California serving as its principal collaborator.

“This award is a major recognition of Stevens Institute of Technology’s leadership, consolidated during the last decade, in the field of Complex Systems Engineering,” said Dinesh Verma, dean of Stevens’ School of Systems & Enterprises, and executive director of the Systems Engineering Research Center.

SERC will be responsible for systems engineering research that supports the development, integration, testing and sustainability of complex defense systems, enterprises and services. SERC will serve as the systems engineering research engine for the Department of Defense and intelligence community. It will also offer systems engineering programs and workshops for Department of Defense and intelligence community employees and contractors.


“As a key partner in this national consortium, we are pleased to have the opportunity to expand our contributions to this country in systems engineering education and research through the linkage of the Lyle Systems Engineering Program with SMU’s Caruth Institute for Engineering Education and its one of a kind Lockheed Martin Skunk Works&reg Lab,” said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering.

SMU Lyle School of Engineering’s Systems Engineering Program has long been recognized for providing work-place relevant education and research to the nation’s aerospace and defense community, both industry and government.

The SEP was developed and continues to evolve under the leadership of Stracener, SEP founding director, in partnership with government agencies and aerospace and defense companies.

The Lyle School of Engineering’s system engineering research program is being driven by needs of aerospace and defense systems developers, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Bell Helicopter, Elbit Systems and L-3 Communications. A doctoral program is being expanded in response to needs of the United States aerospace and defense sector, both industry and government.

Related links:
SMU Lyle School of Engineering Systems Engineering Program
SMU Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering
Systems Engineering Research Center
Stevens Institute of Technology