Shawn Vashaw Wins Humanitarian Engineering Award
by Joe Savrock (June 2009)
UNIVESITY PARK, Pa. – Shawn Vashaw, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education’s Instructional Systems program, recently won the 2009 Humanitarian Engineering Award sponsored by Penn State’s College of Engineering. The award was presented April 29 at the 2009 Industry Partners’ Dinner, held at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.
Vashaw was honored for his work in the development of a cell-phone-based social networking application called WishVast. The new application works entirely through the use of text messages for the benefit of people who live in developing regions of the world where cell phone access is widespread but Internet access is limited.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without a great team,” says Vashaw, referring to the seven-person interdisciplinary group of graduate and undergraduate students with whom he worked to develop the WishVast idea and business model. Rucha Modak, another Instructional Systems graduate student, also participated in the development of the project.
WishVast is designed to give users a means to easily micro-broadcast, providing an opportunity to increase their economic productivity and enhance their social networks. “We think of WishVast as a type of instructional system, or perhaps more accurately a form of computer-supported collaborative learning,” says Vashaw, “because it allows people without access to the Internet to share information with each other and make more informed decisions.”
Vashaw explains that WishVast is designed to be flexible enough to provide many of the benefits of popular Web 2.0 tools—“things like Facebook, Twitter, and Q & A forums,” he says. “In addition, it provides a trust-building element similar to the rating system seen in eBay that allows users in the developing world to build personal reputations, where social networks and word-of-mouth are currently the primary methods of expanding financial networks.”
Two other members of the team, both of whom are students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, spent time in Kenya in May and June validating the technology and gauging the usefulness of the system. They received much positive feedback from a variety of potential user groups.
With its Humanitarian Engineering initiative, Penn State’s College of Engineering challenges students and faculty from all academic disciplines to apply their training to assist and empower underserved individuals and communities in addressing engineering-related problems that directly impact their lives.
Vashaw and Modak represented Penn State as national finalists at the annual I2P4SE (Idea to Product for Social Entrepreneurship) Competition held April 4 at Purdue University. The I2P4SE event recognizes initiatives that have strong potential to benefit society and which address important global issues. “We were the only education majors there, which I guess shouldn’t be surprising for an engineering competition,” noted Vashaw. “We competed with the likes of Brown, MIT, and Rensselaer. It was certainly an educational experience and we met a lot of really inventive and enthusiastic people.”
Vashaw and Modak became involved in the WishVast project by enrolling in a class in humanitarian engineering design (EDSGN 497C and EDSGN 452) in spring 2009. The class was taught by College of Engineering faculty member Thomas Colledge and senior researcher Khanjan Mehta.