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Architecture alumni found startup to improve refugee living conditions

(12/01/15 4:44pm)

The United Nations recently reported that almost 60 million refugees have fled their homes in response to conflict or natural disaster. Rice School of Architecture graduate alumni Sam Brisendine (’14) and Scott Key (’15) are working to address the difficult living conditions refugees face. Brisendine and Key have designed a product called Emergency Floor, which allows refugee camp residents to live on an elevated floor. Brisendine and Key are the co-founders of the company Good Works Studio. By utilizing wooden pallets (initially used for food transportation) and plastic covering slides, the floor they designed offers a cost-effective and innovative solution to keep refugees from living off of the ground — protecting them from flooding waters, disease-infested dirt and cold temperatures.Good Works Studio and Emergency Floor have gained national recognition, being featured in publications such as Huffington Post, Forbes, ArchDaily and DesignBoom.Upon designing Emergency Floor, the duo launched Good Works Studio Inc. through OwlSpark, a program that assists the Rice community with their business startups.A crowdsourced funding campaign this summer on IndieGoGo raised over $52,000. The campaign’s success allowed Good Works to receive a grant from the United States Agency for International Development. Brisendine said pilot tests take up the majority of the company’s funds.  The first pilot conducted for Emergency Floor was installed in an uninhabited area of Sweden; after this preliminary pilot, the floor was cleared for inhabited areas. The next pilot will be domestically in Montana, which according to Brisendine, was selected because it can mirror a winter temperature similar to that which many refugee camps face abroad. “We wanted somewhere with a pronounced winter temperature,” Key said. “In colder climates, which happen to be where a lot of recent refugees are gathering, we believe our floors can have the greatest impact on health, not only physiological, but psychological as well.”According to Brisendine, the story of a certain Afghan refugee camp, which faced a combination of rainstorms and harsh temperatures, inspired the team to further pursue cold climate regions.“It froze [one] night, and a lot of people’s shelters flooded — they got wet, their stuff got wet,” Brisendine said. “A lot of people froze to death. There’s nowhere to go. It’s hard for us to imagine not having options and then just suffering at the level and not having somewhere to turn to. So, that was very motivating and definitely why we’ve targeted cold climates.” Key said that there is data supporting benefits of living on a clean floor rather than a dirt floor, but not on the benefits of a floor, from a thermal perspective, in a cold climate setting.“From the reporting that we read and news stories we consume, that seems to be really what’s plaguing a lot of these refugee camps — especially the combination of wet and cold,” Key said.According to Key, multiple pilots are also needed in order to collect data; pilots comprise of a conduction of pre- and post-installation surveys that report many variables, including overall user experience.“[We’re] really looking for changes in people’s health, their behavior — self-reported of course,” Brisendine said. “[We’re] looking for their feedback — how was it to install, how did this improve your life.”According to Brisendine, the results of the surveys allow the team to make improvements on their product. “Hopefully it’s going to put our product to the test [and] see where it fails,” Brisendine said. “[And] how we can best improve our product, maybe install it in a different way, or try new techniques to extend the life of the floor.”The next product from Good Works Studio will be a floor design similar to Emergency Floor, but designed for a more permanent solution. According to Key, refugees’ provisions in camps are not sustainable. He said the average duration of stay for a refugee in a refugee camp is 17 years.“They’re given shelters that are replaced one or more times a year — that kind of gives you an idea of the denial in terms of goods that are given over to refugees,” Brisendine said. “They don’t really acknowledge it being a permanent situation.”Brisendine said many countries will not admit their country’s situation is not a temporary one. This presents a challenge for Good Works Studio’s new and more permanent design.“Refugees’ host countries oftentimes have rules about how permanent dwellings can be, so our other flooring system, in some context, could be viewed as too permanent while in others, permanence is the goal,” Key said. Good Works Studio’s second product is hoped to be piloted in Ghana, summer 2016.“[We are] hoping the new product finds its way into more permanent dwellings that don’t have concrete floors — that’s a huge issue that’s out there and we think we have a clever solution for it,” Brisendine said.

Students weigh benefits, drawbacks of small majors

(11/10/15 3:42pm)

In the five years from 2009 to 2014, the number of undergraduate students with declared humanities majors decreased by over 200 students while the number in the natural sciences division has increased by a similar amount.Some students majoring in smaller academic schools and degree programs have expressed concerns about the repercussions of majoring in areas with few students. However, others said there are benefits to being part of a small community. The School of Humanities contains the fewest undergraduate majors, according to the Office of Institutional Research: The entire humanities division held only 157 declared majors in fall 2014; comparatively, the psychology major alone, a part of the School of Social Sciences, had 209 declared students and mechanical engineering had 163. After registering for Asian Religions in America (ASIA 230) in spring 2015, Asian studies major Radhika Sharma said she was concerned the course would be canceled due to lack of enrollment, since it only had three students after the first class.“I started to ask my friends to sign up for the class before the two-week add deadline passed because we needed at least five students to be registered or the class may be cut,” Sharma, a Brown College sophomore, said.Sharma said her friends added the course the day before the deadline and dropped it soon after so that the class would not get cancelled.Some departments may cancel courses with low enrollment, according to University Registrar David Tenney (Sid Richardson ’87), but unlike many institutions, Rice does not in fact have a policy requiring a minimum number of students to enroll in the course to prevent its cancellation.“I’ve heard that some academic departments closely monitor their course enrollments during registration in order to monitor and measure demand,” Tenney said. “Our office will see a few courses cancelled before the semester starts, but very, very few.”According to Sonia Ryang, director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies, there are 25 to 30 students majoring in Asian studies at any given time and roughly 15 students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the major each year. Sharma said she feels the largest issue with the department is the relative lack of resources present for Asian studies majors, though she said the department was working to improve.“A lot of our peer universities ... have established opportunities for Asian studies students that help them gain real-world experience and a much deeper understanding of a culture, but we are lacking in [these opportunities], which is unfortunate,” Sharma said.Likewise, medieval and early modern studies major Henry Bair said the biggest drawback of being in a small major was the smaller number of opportunities offered.“Rice already provides very little for the humanities, and being a tiny major in the humanities certainly doesn’t help,” Bair said. “This lack of resources is manifested in the dearth of publicity, guest lectures, relevant material in the library, funds for students and variety in course offerings.”Medieval and early modern studies is Rice’s smallest major; the major is interdisciplinary and has only two to three declared undergraduate students each year, according to program director and art history professor Diane Wolfthal. In 2011, there was only one MDEM major. “The highly interdisciplinary nature of the major makes it easy to see how literature, art, history, linguistics, philosophy, religion and music are all interrelated,” Bair said. Asian studies is also interdisciplinary, which Ryang said allows for faculty in both the School of Humanities and School of Social Sciences to be affiliated with the Chao Center. French studies, another small interdisciplinary major, currently has only 20 declared undergraduates. French studies major Alex Mardock, a Lovett College senior, said a small major can sometimes actually increase the resources available to each student since there is less competition. “The department awards generous scholarships to several students who hope to study abroad in France,” Mardock said. “The small size of the student population makes such opportunities attainable for most people who apply.”Asian studies major Karen Resnick said the connections students can easily build with their professors is the another advantage for the divisions with so few students. “Classes are much smaller and the program itself cares a lot about each student individually,” Resnick, a Duncan College senior, said. “They are able to devote a lot more time and resources, as well as listen to student feedback.” Additionally, Ryang said the Asian studies B.A. is well-suited for double majoring with other subjects, including math, science and engineering. Double majoring is common in many small majors. According to Deborah Nelson-Campbell, a French studies professor, out of the 20 declared majors, most of the students are double majoring. “We have a large number of majors who are pre-med and enjoy their French courses because they are so different from science courses,” Nelson-Campbell said. “Many of our majors use French after graduation as a way to increase the options that they have in the job they get with their other major.”Mardock, who is majoring solely in French studies, said the stigma that French studies is an easy major or produces graduates with poor job prospects is a drawback to majoring in a less-popular major. “I was once asked, upon telling someone my major, ‘So, what’s your other major?’” Mardock said. “Personally, I’m truly passionate about my classes and my major.”Mardock said he felt that negative perceptions of many small majors may be preventing them from enrolling more students.“I will forever be grateful for the knowledge and perspective on the world that I’ve gained throughout my time at Rice,” Mardock said. “It makes me sad to know that many of my peers are turned away from smaller majors by the external pressure of these stereotypes.”