Ken Pickar
Visiting Professor of Mechanical Engineering

California Institute of Technology
208 Gates-Thomas, Mail Code 104-44
Pasadena, CA 91125
(626) 395-4185


E/MedE/ME 105

Background Materials

E 102

E/ME 103

Useful Links




E/ME 105: Product Design for the Developing World

Trips to Guatemala (Student Trip Reports)

Bryce Butcher (Art Center)

There's more to life beyond your reflection

From September 23, 2007 to the 30th, a team of Caltech students, Art Center students, and teachers traveled to the eye-opening land of Guatemala. Upon our arrival to Guatemala we were immediately united with our missing pieces, the Landivar students. We instantly hit it off, a few shy of one another, but knowing we had just created a family. Though we had it so good for the day of meeting each other and getting indulged into the plans for this trip, we had no idea just how much this trip would open up our hearts, minds, and ideas with each and every place we went and every person’s story we heard.

On this trip there were many important lessons that each and every one of us learned. For myself, I will tell of two that touched me. Everywhere we traveled to, from Guatemala City, to San Jose Poaquil, to San Juan La Laguna, to Antigua, each of these places had people who were challenged to make a living. These people were the most humble people I have ever seen. There was a sense of security, hope, content, and happiness everywhere, and yet it looked like such a hard life to be living. Having to use an outhouse, a bathroom down the hall with a curtain or nothing at all, having to pour a bucket of water into the toilet to make it flush, to ignore the eyes of a cockroach staring at you, and yet seeing past all of that as if it’s not even a worry to them at all. They had more important issues at hand than to worry about measly things like that. They had a family to feed, to care for, to love, and be a role model to their children. These people that we met, and were fortunate enough to stay with in Poaquil, were such an inspiration to me. Don’t worry about the little things that are so little and easy to get past, put your heart and devotion into the things that matter, and take the time to appreciate what you have, no matter how little it may be.

Another lesson that I found myself learning from was simply the fact that I am just a fly on the wall. Stepping out of my comfort zone, out of America, out of California, out of Pasadena, into this developing world, I am nobody. Of course I am someone, but when it comes down to it, life isn’t about me. There are so many people out in the world. Going on the interviews to learn about these various issues people are having with their work, the benefits they’re having, and simply just watching people without taking notes, without talking to them, there are so many triumphs and tribulations to be worked out for everyone. It’s not about working up the corporate latter, it’s about making good work. These people are dedicated to what they do and it’s not about shoveling out as much work as possible in the little amount of time that’s most important to them. Though they know that would be fantastic and a great way of bringing home more money, it’s not their main concern; it’s the output of their work that they are concerned with. This is something I feel like we as America have lost. We no longer care about our customers like we used to, and the people of Poaquil and San Juan do. It matters to them how well their shoes will hold up, it matters to them that the blackberries get to the people they are working with. They are honest, good-hearted people and I wish we could take even one-ounce of that dedication and distribute it to each and every person here.

With this experience there were so many people to meet, places to see, and yet so little time. I think if I could have it my way, we would have stayed an extra week, though we all know that wouldn’t have been possible, however I do believe that it would have made this trip that much more influential. Looking back I am so glad we did each and every thing we did while we were there, however when I was there I could feel my body aching for a rest. At times I would just yearn for a break in the day because I felt we were just always on pins and needles, having to be ready to go to the next location. I understood the importance for this because of the lack of time with so much to see, however I feel like if we just had some downtime with the people we were visiting with, an hour to really walk through the landscapes, really observe the areas on our own for say, an hour in the middle of the day, I think I might’ve even learnt that much more. There’s a great amount of knowledge that comes with observation and time to think about what you’re seeing in the silence of the fields. Another way to improve this trip could be to allow for one meal a day be one where we could go to a location where we pick what we’re going to eat. I think diving into a place so different from that of where we come from is a difficult challenge, but on top of that, eating foods completely new is a risky maneuver. I think if the body can recognize one meal a day it would help in respects to its change of scenery and consumption of food.

When we met Julio and Carlos, the inventors of the city, I knew we were in for a treat. These men had a passion and you could see it in their eyes and their smile. You can recognize when someone has energy to innovate and a drive to improve. For me, I'd have to say the stove that Julio Cesar engineered and designed was amazing and stuck with me the most. Seeing the cultural ways come into the design of this stove was brilliant. I’d even go as far as to point out again how it shows the difference between the people of Guatemala from the people in America. When we design a stove, yes we make sure it does what the person needs for it to do, but we don’t take into account the idea of eating with the family when it’s designed like Julio does. With his stove, it's known that children will be around while the mother is cooking because of the cement to keep the surface cool to touch by the hands of children. He also incorporated the cultural tiles to bring the feeling of home, out to the stove. With every pot placement onto the surface of the stove there are rings to account for size differentials and a door for baking. To reduce the smoke inhalation there is an exhaust for releasing the smoke up and out of the room. There are so many directions that Julio was sure to come by when designing this stove for the Guatemalan family.

This trip most definitely met my expectations, in fact, it surpassed them. I think I took a much more emotional attachment to this trip than I thought I would. I almost felt as though I was going on this trip to learn new things and see new sites and get information for the class I would be participating in at Caltech. And though I may have been doing that, I definitely grew an attachment for the people, the culture, and the life of the various places we visited. There is a magical charm about Guatemala that may not be a pretty sight for some, but it is heart warming for me to look back on. I truly cannot wait until I go back again to see my friends that I have made. I found a second family going on this trip and I found people who treated me as if I were in their first family. I of course didn’t expect to get sick, but I don’t regret it at all. I got to, first hand, receive the nurture that the women of Poaquil effortlessly give to those they don’t even know, in fact one who doesn’t even speak their language. There was such a craving to be able to open my mouth and speak Spanish with these people but because I came to Guatemala with a lack of knowledge of the language I couldn’t. However, even though I couldn’t speak the language, I could definitely speak and understand the actions of appreciation and care.

In terms of gathering Product design ground truth, there was an amazing amount of insight in which I have already discussed, all of which I believe will improve my ability to design for the people we have visited, as well as for those I will design for in the future. As a whole, this trip was not only an inspiration to my way of thinking about life, but also about design, and how much the person and their culture come into play. I think so many times the world just throws out products that they figure will work for the average person they research, but really it’s not the most vital product for everyone out there in the world because none of us have means to know what everyone needs and can use. However, I do find that there is a need to research past those that we know we are designing for, and take into account that it might go past the hands of those people and into a world much like that of Guatemala, where cell phones are in the pockets of almost everyone you meet, and yet a loom wrapped around their waste. But besides the product research of this trip, there was a life-lesson involved in getting to know the people that you are with and appreciating them for who they are and what they bring to the table. Have an appreciation for those who are different than you, look different than you, eat differently than you, make a different income than you… thank God that we are different and there is more to see than the reflection in the mirror. Life would be so boring and such a waste if we didn’t have these opportunities like this trip to find more to life than that of our backyard, and meet people that can care about you like their own, and design for people that actually need your work rather than design for the person who has everything.