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Engineering major embarks on African odyssey

May 16, 2011

For most people, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro would be the highlight of their summer, or maybe even their life. For NIU engineering student Alan Hurt, it is just a start.

NIU engineering student Alan Hurt is traveling in Africa this summer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and conduct research.

NIU engineering student Alan Hurt is traveling in Africa this summer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and conduct research.

Just hours after completing his last final exam of the semester, Hurt boarded a plane bound for Africa, carrying only a single rucksack containing a few clothes, some personal items and a laptop computer.

Those meager supplies, he hopes, will be enough to get him through an arduous three-month journey with an itinerary that includes:

  • climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro by the end of May, as a fundraiser for a school in Kenya;
  • crisscrossing the African continent conducting research on various fuels used to fire cook stoves;
  • meeting up with fellow members of the NIU chapter of Engineers Without Borders to plan a December project to build a solar-powered cook stove at a school in Tanzania.

While others shake their heads in wonder over his ambitious summer plans, Hurt just shrugs his shoulders.

“My parents raised me to be altruistic,” says the 26-year-old who is double majoring in mechanical engineering and industrial engineering. “They instilled in me certain morals and virtues and a desire to do good in life any way that I can.”

His decision to apply his energies in Africa is due, in part, to his relationship with Andrew Otieno, a professor in NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, where Hurt enrolled two years ago. Otieno advises NIU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (for which Hurt serves as president) and is involved in several charitable undertakings in his home country of Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.

“Coming to NIU was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Hurt says. “Dr. Otieno has been a huge inspiration. Meeting him changed my life because he opened to me an avenue that allows me to mesh my engineering expertise with my passion for improving the lives of others.”

This is Hurt’s fourth trip to Africa. His first was in 2007 when he volunteered at a school that serves children who literally live in and on trash dumps. That experience helped inspire his decision to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, as a fundraiser for education in Africa.

That leg of the odyssey began Saturday, May 14, with his arrival in Nairobi.

After a couple of days spent recovering from his trip, and visiting friends, he traveled to Moshi, Tanzania for the climb. There he hopes to hire his own team of five or six porters and cooks to support a solo climb (the economics of the country make this an affordable option). Failing that, he will attach himself to one of the numerous tour groups that tackle the mountain each year.

His meager rucksack does not contain clothing suitable for the climb, which will take place during the rainy season. Instead, he plans to secure gear for the trip at the base of the mountain where locals sell and rent, for pennies on the dollar, gear discarded by previous climbers.

That “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” approach is typical of his planning for the trip, as he knows the region is so unpredictable that the best-laid plans typical go awry.

The climb up the 19,023-foot mountain (and back down) should take about eight days. While he is a lifelong Midwesterner and unaccustomed to heights, Hurt is optimistic that he can complete the trek – even though he has friends who have been felled by altitude sickness just 200 yards from the summit.

For him, reaching the top of the mountain is less important than raising money to benefit schoolchildren. He has been soliciting donations from friends and relatives, and has established an online account where donations can be made securely through the Sango Association. All proceeds will go directly to the school he has designated.

After the climb, Hurt will embark on a cross-continent journey that will take him to schools in more than a dozen African nations. His goal is to gather data regarding cooking methods at the schools in hopes of finding a cleaner cheaper fuel that the wood or petroleum-based products that most now use.

“Most of these schools, many of the children attend less because of the opportunity to learn, and more because they are guaranteed a meal. At the school where I helped teach in 2007, cooking fuel was the second highest operational cost,” Hurt says.

The data collection will be part of an independent study project that Hurt is conducting under the guidance of Otieno and another NIU engineering professor, Nicholas Pohlman. He has high hopes for a system he plans to view in Uganda that relies upon a biogas derived from readily available water hyacinth.

He hopes that he can learn enough about the system that when he returns he can devise a way to manufacture the system simply and cheaply. In fact, that quest will be the centerpiece of a class in social entrepreneurism that he will take through the NIU College of Business this fall. If the project is judged the most viable developed in the class, he and teammates will receive seed money to pursue creation of a company to build and sell the device in Third World countries.

The data collection will be an adventure in and of itself. He has a few phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but by and large he will travel wherever he hears that an interesting innovation exists. He will rely primarily on buses and trains to get him where he needs to be, and looks forward to eating the same simple food that locals eat.

“I developed some ‘street smarts’ about traveling on my earlier trips to Africa, and I will be carrying little of value, so I am not too concerned about running into trouble along the way,” he says.

In early August, he will meet up with classmates in Musoma, Tanzania, to plan the construction of a fuel-efficient cooking system or Nyegina Secondary School. Current plans are call for a solar-powered device, but Hurt hopes that his research might turn up even better options.

After that, he will spend about a week relaxing and teaching before catching an Aug. 19 flight back to Chicago. He will arrive just in time for the start of fall classes.

Hurt has established a blog, Planes, Trains and Africa, where he will post occasional updates about his journey.

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by Joe King