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Field of Dreams

By Eileen McCluskey

Simon Beckwith, Julia Cohn, Leigh Duren, and Kyle Lewis haul surveying equipment and water collection containers onto a field in Kanchanaburi Province, ready for another day of data collection. Their mission: to design a model irrigation system for a planned 80-acre oil palm tree plantation some 125 miles northwest of Bangkok. In doing so, they would also help sustain the lives of Thailand’s deprived children.

The New Life for Abused Children Project in Thailand is a nonprofit organization that helps children who, for various reasons, have not enjoyed the benefits of safe, loving homes. Some were trafficked from nearby countries into Bangkok’s sex and drug trades, others suffered abuse at caregivers’ hands. New Life houses them, counsels them, and sends them to local schools. It also teaches them employable skills. That’s where the IQP team came in.

The students developed an irrigation system for the organization’s oil palms. The trees will serve double duty as New Life teaches the children oil palm-based trades and uses revenues generated from the trees to help them expand and become self-reliant. New Life has been assisting Thailand’s children since 1998, when it was established by the country’s Duang Prateep Foundation (DPF).

“The children at New Life are learning how to convert the oil into soap, fragrances, lamp oil, and other locally traded commodities,” notes Rob Krueger, assistant professor in the Global Perspective Program of WPI’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division. “These skills are incredibly useful in Thailand’s economy.” Krueger served as one of two advisors to this IQP.

The four WPI seniors visited the country from January through March 2005 for the on-site portion of their IQP, which tied for first place in the President’s IQP Awards. “I think we all felt excited about this project, because it could have such a lasting, positive impact on people’s lives,” says Duren.

Indeed, agriculture plays a critical role in feeding and employing Thailand’s population; 60 percent of Thais work as farmers, according to the Bangkok Post’s Mid-Year Economic Review 2004. Thailand is also the world’s largest rice and rubber exporter. But perhaps even more significant, says Krueger, “most Thais eat locally available foods, period.”

All this in a country that relies heavily on rainfall for most of its water.

“Even though Thailand is a reasonably well-developed country, water is still a seasonal commodity,” Krueger says. “The natives are dependent on rainfall to sustain them. DPF and New Life chose these trees not only for the oil’s commercial value, but because these trees can grow in this environment, with available water.”

Fielding Solutions

In researching the best irrigation system to implement, the students weighed ecological and geological factors and considered New Life’s plans to quadruple the number of oil palms it hosts over the next 10 years. They collected data and observed workers at the plantation, sought out local equipment suppliers, and worked on their report at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University (Chula), where WPI students stay when they travel to Thailand.

One field day found Cohn and Lewis photographing different points along the test field’s perimeter and along the reservoir closest to the field, using Chula-loaned surveying equipment. They calculated the field’s area and measured the water source’s position relative to the field, while Duren and Beckwith collected water samples for later analysis.

On another day, Lewis rowed out to the middle of the reservoir in a tiny craft, and computed the lake’s slope to determine its depth.

The team also took to the streets, traveling by taxi, bus, and foot—sometimes by sky train—to investigate local irrigation outfitters.

At Chula, the students plugged their data into AutoCAD and Excel to determine the length of lateral and main tubing for a drip irrigation system, and to estimate their recommended system’s cost to New Life. Their water analyses helped them choose the best pump and filters for the plantation.

With the painstaking background work completed, Duren says, “it was fun to run a mock irrigation trial. We bought emitters and tubing from a local supplier and rigged up a model drip irrigation system, to see if the soil would absorb the water without pooling. We didn’t want it to evaporate or run off.”

It didn’t, and the students recommended their drip irrigation system for the plantation. The highly efficient, low-tech approach will keep the oil palms’ delicate, horizontal root systems moist, and ensure an easily maintained arrangement that works with New Life’s existing reservoirs.

The students went beyond their assignment and wrote a maintenance manual and fund-raising brochure, which provided drip irrigation system specifications.

“DPF will have to raise funds to get this project off the ground,” says Beckwith. “But once it’s built, we want the system to last. Our extra documents can help accomplish those goals.”v

“This IQP was an alignment of extraordinary students and an extraordinary project,” says Steve Pierson, who served as advisor with Krueger. Pierson taught physics at WPI from 1996 to 2005, and has worked with IQP teams in Namibia and Thailand.

“WPI does the IQP so well,” says Pierson, who is now head of government relations with the American Physical Society. “The students have two years of classroom training behind them, but they are not yet aware of what they can accomplish. Then they go out and do their IQP, and their eyes open to their capabilities.”

They also see new worlds. Says Cohn, “I spent my last IQP weekend at New Life with the children and staff, just to experience life with them. I want to go back to Thailand. I miss it every day.”

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Last modified: Apr 17, 2006, 14:35 EDT
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