Community & Society / Science & Technology

From West Philly to East Africa: A Student Group With a Fresh Take on Outreach

On Jan. 21, people across the nation honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by taking time to serve others. The spirit of the day is observed year-round, however, by a Drexel student group whose volunteers work in clinics and schools in Philadelphia, and hospitals and health centers in Africa, giving people the skills and knowledge to overcome challenges they face on a daily basis.

This small-but-growing group, called weServe, “Service Through Innovation,” started in 2009 as a co-op experience for students from the School of Biomedical Engineering Science and Health Systems to use their unique medical/technical training in real-life scenarios in the Philadelphia area where facilities and equipment are less than ideal.  Now more than 90 members-strong, and open to students from all disciplines of study, weServe has become a program that teaches students how to use their knowledge and training to help people both nearby and around the world.

weServe-Mozambique12-13Pujara-Howard

Jamie Howard (left) and Dhairya Pujara (right) repair equipment in Mozambique.

In Gambia, weServe volunteers fix medical equipment and train doctors in hospitals in how to use equipment such as electrocardiograms and x-ray machines that have been donated to them. In Philadelphia health clinics, the students collect data about how people search for health information online. Using this data they help train clinicians in talking to their patients about why it’s important to come in for regular check-ups, rather than trying to self-diagnose from internet searches.  And, in a local high school, weServe members students engage their younger peers in a variety of out-of-the-classroom learning activities related to science, technology, engineering and math. Students must first volunteer their time at local partner institutions such as Drexel’s 11th Street Family Health Services center, the Inglis Foundation, a residential facility for people living with neurological disorders, and Father Judge High School.

A workout facility designed by weServe students at the Inglis Foundation in Philadelphia.

A workout facility designed by weServe students at the Inglis Foundation in Philadelphia.

At the Inglis Foundation, Greg Boehm, a weServe student who graduated and is now working at the foundation, drew on his knowledge of biomechanics to develop a better layout of Iglis’s exercise facility. After completing their local service experience, students have the option of traveling abroad to one of the weServe outposts in Mozambique or Gambia. In places like Chicuque Rural Hospital and the Sulayaman Junkung General Hospital, the students’ biomedical training is literally saving lives. They repair medical equipment that has been donated to the hospitals and is either old or broken and usually without an instruction manual and train hospital workers in how to use, repair and maintain it.Jamie Howard, an undergraduate in the College of Engineering, reflected on her experience in Mozambique in a recent DrexelNOW feature:

“We have to be creative because there is no money to just go to the hardware store and buy new equipment when something breaks. We have to find a way to reuse materials we already have, even if it’s in an unconventional way.” Howard adds, “I am learning how to continuously adapt my work so that it is sustainable and I am tuning into how technology can be made more appropriate for a place that has few resources at its disposal.”

Dhairya Pujara teaching a group of doctors in a hospital in Mozambique.

Dhairya Pujara teaching a group of doctors in a hospital in Mozambique.

Howard and biomedical engineering graduate student Dhairya Pujara have been working in Mozambique since October, you can follow their experience via their weServe travel blog. In a recent post, Pujara, who was fresh off training a group of practicing doctors how to use an electrocardiogram (ECG), saw how his background was bridging an important knowledge gap at the hospital:

“At the end of this training session, Dr.Lucia- one of the key experts instrumental in helping us with organizing these sessions gave her valuable feedback. She quotes ‘We are not taught like this in med schools. They teach in a very complicated way and too scientific to understand. However, I liked the way you explained us the concepts today. It was simple to understand and fun to learn it this way.’

This was the best Christmas gift I could have asked for.’”

An predominant messages of The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service is that everyone can serve in some way. weServe is just one of the many organizations that are doing great things around the world to honor Dr. King, but its example of sustainable, conscientious outreach is one whose effects endure well beyond Jan. 21.

For more information about the weServe program visit: http://dusers.drexel.edu/~wesserve/.

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