Keilin Jahnke: Tech’s Success All about Understanding the End Users

Keilin JahnkeKeilin Jahnke is a Ph.D. candidate in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Alongside her teammates in Professor Bruce Litchfield’s research lab, she is developing a new kind of clean cook stove that could replace dirty indoor fires that nearly 3 billion people worldwide rely on to prepare daily meals.

More than 4 million people die each year from health conditions linked to the inhalation of smoke, ash, and soot from cooking fires, most of which burn solid fuels like wood or dried animal dung directly inside a dwelling, or just outside the door. Keilin’s team’s solution is a 12-inch circular metal vessel containing materials that, when placed in a mirrored sun-concentrating dish, will store enough solar-thermal energy to cook a full family meal later that evening.

Keilin completed both a B.S. in General Engineering (2012) and an M.S. in Systems and Entrepreneurial Engineering (2014) at Illinois. She’s most drawn to the application side of engineering, she said, where the technologies and systems created in a lab cross over into the “real world” to start helping people.

Her first experience with that side of engineering came in 2011, when she took a Learning in Community course trip to Konilo-Coura, Mali, a community of 800 people in need of a water distribution and filtration system. She collected data on people’s water use and relevant demographic information for the project.

As a graduate student, she was eager to keep up her involvement in development work and began co-teaching Illinois’s Honduras Water Project special topics course in Engineering alongside Professor Ann-Perry Witmer in 2013. The course combines classroom study of international humanitarian development with an on-site project to design a water distribution system for a Honduran community by considering technical, social, and political aspects of the project.

“(Ann) has been instrumental in helping me see how to do international development projects in a way that is sustainable, successful, and long-lasting,” Keilin said. “She has this way of approaching communities and approaching projects so they don’t just break in a year. So, I think that’s been really helpful to see the importance of talking to people and really understanding what people want and what they need, because ultimately it’s their call whether they use it, whether they maintain it or not.

“My favorite part (of applied engineering) is the interaction between people and the technology — and that’s what I get to work on with the stored solar stove project.”

Her niche on the Stored Solar Stove team is that of user-centered design and product adoption. It’s all about understanding the people the technology is designing for, she explained.

“The nearly 3 billion people who cook on fire today will decide whether they want to switch to a solar-thermal stove,” she said. “And sometimes people need to be convinced beyond simply that ‘it can save you time and money.’  People want to know how it will improve their lives and be a more convenient alternative.”

Through a visit to the Navajo Technical University in spring 2016, Kelin and the team gleaned some insights about the “little nuances” that may prevent or discourage people from using it — details like the solar vessel’s cooktop being hot enough to cook most foods but not traditional Navajo frybread in a large pan.

“Recognizing those things earlier lets us make adjustments ahead of time before we do much bigger field testing.”

It can be a difficult task to get honest feedback from those who have taken the stored solar vessel for a test-drive, she said.

“People don’t lie to you intentionally, but people want to encourage the folks who brought the new shiny thing to show them, you know, give us a ‘good job!’ How do you move past that to get good feedback? I find conversations are better,” she said. “I don’t want to ask people to use my stove and then answer my 20 question survey, but I watch while they use it and then I ask them, ‘Would you use this in your home? Does it work as good as your regular stove?’ ”

“We’d also love to get (nongovernmental organizations) or nonprofits who are already involved in the communities and these people’s lives to collect data for us. I think people are more comfortable expressing concerns when the person who built the technology is not around.”

Keilin’s greatest goal for her time with the Stored Solar Stove team is to have real impacts on the lives of those who cook on fire by freeing them from the from the time-consuming and sometimes dangerous duty of gathering firewood or other fuels — each day and from the respiratory illnesses that indoor cooking fires cause.

“I’d love to stick with the project as long as it’s around, whatever it turns into. I’m really excited about the technology and the potential of solving a big problem,” she said.  “I also really like teaching. I think Bruce and Ann have been big influences in seeing just how cool it is to see students learn about how to make the world a better place and do things in a way that will be successful. I would love to continue teaching.”


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