Professor Blogs for New York Times

by Mary Martialay on July 9, 2010

As if traveling to Accra, Ghana isn’t enough, Ron Elgash – a professor in Rensselaer’s Department of Science and Technology Studies – is blogging about his research trip in the New York Times.

Eglash, who teaches in the Design, Innovation and Society program, has been blogging this week on the New York Times’Scientist at Work” blog about the adventures of field work. “Scientist at Work” is a relatively new blog for the New York Times, and has featured posts from researchers traveling in locations like Madagascar, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Alaska. 

Hard at work in Ghana.

In the KNUST Guest House in Ghana.

Eglash is working on two projects during his stay in Ghana, which runs from June 29-July 12.

One project stems from his Triple Helix project, funded with a five-year, $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) GK-12 program. The grant supports up to eight STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduate fellows in work as assistant in low-income classrooms, and in research projects that relate to community-based issues.

While in Ghana, Eglash is searching for research opportunities for those graduate fellows. Potential subjects include mixing math and culture in African classrooms, and H.I.V prevention.

Eglash is also chaperoning five outstanding undergraduate engineering students on an exchange program with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), a Ghanaian technical school. In partnership with KNUST, the students will be exploring the energy potential of local agricultural waste as bio-fuel.

 KNUST is trying to find a way to convert copious waste from agricultural products – like pulp left over from the production of palm oil – into badly needed energy. Right now, many farmers and processors burn their agricultural waste in open pits, producing plumes of noxious smoke and no energy for the local community. KNUST is also investigating biodigestion, but, when Eglash visited in January, they said they could most use help in assessing the potential of pyrolysis (the use of heat to convert biomass to syngas).

For their research, the students have designed an apparatus that can be built on site with local materials, rather than an expensive device imported from abroad and susceptible to expensive breakdowns (they did build a working prototype of the apparatus, but didn’t want the hassle of getting it through airport security).

Eglash and the students will be traveling all over the countryside to collect materials and, in the process, interviewing locals about how a bio-fuel project might impact them. Eglash, who is passionate about combining social justice with technology, is acutely aware that technology projects in the third world frequently have unintended and tragic consequences, and he wants his students to be mindful of the political consequences of their work.