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Students come up with a better machete and more     Send a link to a friend

[OCT. 23, 2004]  URBANA -- Thanks to the efforts of students from the University of Illinois, sugar cane cutters in South Africa could soon be using a better machete.

Nine students from the U of I traveled to South Africa this past summer on a unique study tour sponsored by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. They were teamed with students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal to work on a variety of engineering design projects that dealt with everything from machetes to irrigation.

For instance, undergraduate students Nick Jones and Anthony McCullough were members of the team that studied the cutting performance of the sugar cane machete. They spent time cutting cane themselves to get a hands-on understanding of the labor involved; then they eventually worked on modifications to existing machetes to improve their ergonomics and cutting efficiency. Jones and McCullough also redesigned the cutting blade on a motorized tool that would cut the cane more efficiently and economically.

Alan Hansen, an associate professor in agricultural and biological engineering, came to the U of I from South Africa five years ago and accompanied the students on the trip. "I guess I've always had it in the back of my mind to take students back with me," he said. "I wanted them to experience what it's like, because it's a great country and a great environment."

However, Hansen and co-organizer Andrea Bohn, an assistant dean in the College of ACES, wanted to try something different from the typical study trip.

"I had the idea of the students working on projects while they were there," Hansen said. "I knew that the engineering department in South Africa organized design projects similar to what we have here, so I suggested that we pair up the students and work as teams across the Atlantic."

In addition to the machete work, other projects included the following:

  • Seth Wenzel and Zach Waite worked with their South African counterparts to design an automatic weighing system to accurately measure the amount of sugar cane lifted by a loader during harvest.
  • Geri Wellen and Laura Schutte developed a model for a low-cost microflood irrigation system that would make efficient use of available water and increase productivity.
  • Scott Dixon, Justin Bruns and Kevin Knapp incorporated a yield-mapping system onto a John Deere lawn mower. They set it up as a scale model for the kinds of systems currently used on modern combines, such as Global Positioning System receivers.

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Some items of equipment, software and sensors were purchased for the projects and intentionally left behind for the South African students to use. Funding for these gifts was provided by John Deere and Company and the U of I Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

In addition to the educational experience the students received, Hansen was pleased that they were able to experience typical South African conditions and environments through weekend excursions. 

The students' visits to two game reserves gave them glimpses of a "whole cross section of wild animals indigenous to South Africa," said Hansen. "We saw warthogs, wildebeests, elephants, giraffe, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and lots of birds. We visited a hide and were wonderfully entertained by some baboons there."

The group also traveled to the Drakensberg Mountains and stayed at a lodge that overlooked a 300-foot waterfall. 

"I know from the students that this trip had a great impact on them all," Hansen said. "I believe it has broadened their outlook considerably and will have a lasting influence on their academic, professional and personal lives."

The International Programs in Engineering provided a travel grant to cover 80 percent of the cost of airfare for the students, while the College of ACES and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering also provided funding for the trip. A travel grant award from the Center for African Studies covered Hansenís expenses.

[University of Illinois news release]

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