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Washing Quinoa

Interdisciplinary Leadership in the Fields of Peru

Despite the challenge of balancing his schedule as a Chemical Engineering student, junior Honors student Parker Johns still reaches out for inspiration in other fields, especially when completing an interdisciplinary project for his Honors Leadership Development Experience (LDE). Creating an automatic quinoa washer for rural farmers in Peru proved to be a difficult but fulfilling project and Parker returned with some recommendations to make the LDE a fun experience for every Honors student.

Parker did not know he was starting his LDE when he began the quinoa project. He joined the Global Engineering Outreach (GEO) Study Abroad through his major in March of 2021. Under the direction of Dr. Randy Lewis from Chemical Engineering and Dr. Terri Bateman from Mechanical Engineering, the group was split into four teams, and they picked between four topics. Parker’s team was focused on designing an automated quinoa washer and his team consisted of students from mechanical, electrical, chemical, and computer engineering. The interdisciplinarity did not stop at different flavors of engineering, however. When Porcón, the Peruvian city where they were going to test the washer, froze over, the quinoa crop was destroyed, and the project was halted. Quickly, the team began to reach out to other departments to find rural Peruvian quinoa farms and contacts to reach out to the people. Dr. Michael Dunn from the Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science department and Dr. Amy Wood from Chemical Engineering were essential in finding Puno, Peru which proved to be the perfect community for Parker’s project. Through the Quinoa International Directory Facebook group, the team also found a Peruvian professor who connected them to an engineer who located a Peruvian tour guide that gave them helpful pointers to make their project more attuned to the needs of Puno.

Around this time, Parker realized two things: first, this would be the perfect LDE experience and second, culture needed to be a serious consideration in the development of the washer. The first realization had a quick solution. Meeting with Rory McWhorter, the LDE Coordinator in the Honors Office, Parker figured out the exact qualifications for a good LDE project and how to complete that requirement. The second realization led to significant design changes. Initially constructed from wood, the washer was lightweight and could be easily disassembled to fit in a suitcase to be transported to Peru. Puno does not have lots of wood, however; metal is a much more common building material. Therefore, the washer was constructed with metal and changes in the design allowed for it to remain under fifty pounds and able to be disassembled. After arriving in Puno, Parker’s team met with Brigida, a woman who works with the women washing the quinoa. She and the workers tested the quinoa washer and provided feedback. While the washer was the perfect size for the average BYU student, Peruvian women are often under five feet tall and the washer was enormous to them. They also recommended more safety features and an automatic on/off switch.

Further interdisciplinary experiences came towards the end of the project. Wilbur, a local agricultural engineer, met with the team in Puno to recommend ways to upscale the project in a way that would make sense in the small town. Eventually, the team left the washer with Wilbur to allow him to tinker with it until the next BYU team can return and glean his insights. Samples of quinoa were brought back to Dr. Dunn so that more research could be done in determining the right amount of rinsing to maximize the nutrition of the quinoa product.

Some of the biggest insights from the project for Parker were not giving up and personally connecting to your project. When the quinoa crop froze over in Porcon in October, the team had to scramble to find another city to partner with. This was a scary prospect when the project was already so far along in development, but reaching out to professors in other disciplines allowed for important connections in the project. Dr. Dunn from Nutrition proved essential in maximizing the nutritional value of the quinoa and Dr. Wood helped to make the project more Puno friendly. In terms of making the project personal, Parker served his mission in the Lima South Peru mission and returning to Peru to give back to the community that helped him grow as a person was always a goal for him. On the GEO trip, he even met up with a member from his mission! Making the LDE project personal helps it feel less like a checklist item and more like an exciting opportunity to explore something you love.

After returning from Peru, Parker quickly flew out to Twanda, Pennsylvania to complete an internship at DuPont in their manufacturing technology co-op. He is finally back at BYU for the Fall semester and between classes, he is looking forward to reading, singing loudly in the car, and playing some basketball and flag football. While quinoa may not be the focus of his studies this semester, Parker clearly learned a thing or two about how interdisciplinary connections can heighten your performance in your core studies as well.

If reading about Parker’s Leadership Development Experience has inspired you to start yours, click here to schedule an appointment with Rory McWhorter, the LDE Coordinator in the Honors Office.