At Rice University in Houston, Texas, two engineering professors are teaching their students to confront big problems with simple solutions. One group of their students has turned to shoe boxes and aquarium pumps to bring the breath of life to babies born prematurely in remote locations such as Malawi.

Maria Oden, an engineering professor, and Rebecca Richards-Kortum, chairwoman of the school’s bioengineering department, run a program they call Rice 360. The program’s mission is to develop simple solutions for problems faced in rural hospitals. The professors aren’t looking for a better MRI or anything that complicated but they are happy when a team of students develops a better way to measure drug dosages or control the delivery of IV fluids.

Not every design project comes out a winner but sometimes a spark of interest so strong is ignited that students continue to work with their design team long after semester’s end. These driven college kids know they’ll get no additional credit hours for their continued research but they grow so determined to find a viable solution they don’t just walk away.

That’s what happened with the shoebox-and-aquarium-pump project. Oden and Richards-Kortum consider it one of the most successful projects coming from the program.

The plan was to build a baby-size bubble continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that would make breathing easier for premature infants. Many adults use CPAPs to treat sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

Two aquarium pumps and a trip to Target for a plastic shoe box did the trick. Once this prototype proved successful, the students dressed up the design to give it a more professional look. Samples of the device were sent to rural hospitals in Malawi for testing in the field.

Richards-Kortum and Oden traveled to Malawi with one of the students who designed the baby bubble CPAP machine. They visited one of the hospitals where testing was done and discovered the device had proven to be a lifesaver.

One of the nurses at the hospital had a baby born prematurely. The bubble CPAP was used on him and it is credited with saving the tiny baby’s life.

Richards-Kortum describes “chills all the way down my entire spine” when the nurse went home to fetch her baby to meet the women responsible for the device. Of the student, Richards-Kortum says she “was able to look and see a life that she had affected.” She says of teaching the students who enroll in the Rice 360 project, “we want them to leave here believing they can make a difference. This was the picture of a true difference being made.”

Source: Palca, Joe. “Saving Babies’ Lives Starts With Aquarium Pumps And Ingenuity.” NPR Shots. NPR. Jan 3, 2014. Web. Jan 30, 2014.