Architecture student Anna Kintsurashvili would not have imagined last autumn that she would end up building a plastic recycling device with her own hands in Kampala, Uganda.
The plastic reuse project carried out together by students of Aalto University and Ugandan Makerere University was, however, a success in many ways.
The local community enthusiastically adopted the team’s recycling solution and the team members’ work with people from different cultural education backgrounds helped to broaden the students’ minds.
‘I realised that my career is not simply bound to the field that I’m studying. I can do all kinds of great things when I have an enthusiastic team around me’, Kintsurashvili says.
Kintsurashvili was one of around 20 master’s students from different fields that participated in the SGT Studio course this spring. The student teams on the course carried out real development projects around the world.
Now being held for the 12th time, the SGT Studio course is part of the multidisciplinary Sustainable Global Technologies programme.
‘The goal is to provide the opportunity to carry out concrete projects in places where one would not otherwise end up. It is important to see the world in order to shape a genuinely global perspective on large development challenges’, explains Olli Varis, Professor of Water Resource Management and holder of the Matti Pursula Professorship.
Engineers and designers can learn from each other
The SGT programme is open to all Aalto University master’s and doctoral students. Efforts are made to bring together in the Studio course teams people with diverse educational backgrounds and skills. An engineer, designer or business graduate each brings their own perspective to the development projects and they can also learn from each other.
Anna Kintsurashvili and Bruce Nuwagaba of Team Up-Plastic are building a compression machine for plastic recycling at Makerere University in Kampala. Photo: Olga Mäkinen.
‘The course’s work approach simulates the workplace. In the projects, students learn to work together with people with different educational backgrounds and to take responsibility for their own involvement as part of the team’, explains the programme’s coordinator Matleena Muhonen.
The student teams receive free rein to carry out their projects as they wish. Support is provided by the project training sessions, the teachers and also mentors who may be former students now working in the development field or PhD students.
‘The mentors might have thought that our ideas are ambitious, but they also prefer to give freedom even if it means to let us fail, which luckily we didn’t. It is important, because it is the only way to learn’, Anna Kintsurashvili.
Many hours were spent working on the projects. Kintsurashvili nevertheless considers that it was worth all the effort.
‘The students that sign up for the course are really motivated and ambitious, and they really want to achieve something good. It’s wonderful to see how committed they are to their projects’, Muhonen says.
Local students offer new perspectives
The projects involve cooperation with development and aid organisations, businesses, and local universities and communities. Many projects involve local students.
‘Without the perspective of local students, our project would have been greatly lacking’, says business student Sachie Yoshizumi, who is studying the Creative Sustainability master’s programme.
The team she was part of was studying how communications could be improved for the reconstruction work being carried out following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Nepalese students provided invaluable assistance as interpreters and trainers in local culture and practices when the team members were doing field work in the village of Dhungentar.
‘The experience was an eye-opener for the Nepalese students, who previously had not participated in a project like this. Field work and conversations with less privileged inhabitants of the village gave them a strong motivation to improve things in their home country’, Yoshizumi says.
Some projects continue from one year to the next, which makes possible more long-term development work. For example, an ecotourism and water purification project in Mexico carried out in cooperation with local universities has been running already for seven years.
Team Up-Plastic held a recycling workshop in Kampala. Eco-artist Ruganzu Bruno was teaching how to make art out of plastic. Kuva: Enni Huotari.
Courage to take hold of big challenges
For Matleena Muhonen, however, the learning process is more important than the final result.
‘The course gives a glimpse into the world of development work. Some former students got hooked and have gone on to work for different UN organisations, for example.’
According to Professor in charge Olli Varis, the goal is also to inspire students to boldly take on the big challenges facing humanity and the planet in their future careers.
‘The world is changed by action. We seek to instil into the students a positive drive towards rolling up their sleeves and getting down to work.’
For Sachie Yoshizumi, who had previously done voluntary work, the project gave new perspectives on aid work.
‘The project gave me many new ideas for making development work more participatory in the future. Instead of focusing solely on material aid, it should increase the capacity of local people to help themselves and provide them with tools for securing their livelihoods’, Yoshizumi says.
Anna Kintsurashvili and the rest of her team see plastic waste as the problem of global importance and not only the issue in developing world this is why they want to continue working on the problem of plastic in Finland as well. The goal is to set up a workspace in Aalto where artwork or design pieces can be made from plastic waste.
‘The most important thing which I have learnt from this project is that if you really believe in something and you believe it will have an impact, then you will find a way to do it.’
The SGT Studio 2018 student teams will present the final reports for their projects on 21 May 2018 from 9.00 to 13.00 in the Harald Herlin Learning Centre. More information: aalto.fi/en/current/events/2018-05-04-002/.
The SGT programme is organised by the Department of Built Environment’s Water and Environmental Engineering Research Group. SGT is also part of the multidisciplinary Creative Sustainability master’s programme. Further information: sgt.aalto.fi.