Students participating in an annual biomedical engineering project were required to limit their spending to $14 per week.
Under the guidance of Professor Robert Malkin, director of Engineering World Health and the Global Public Service Academies, students enrolled in Design for the Developing World (BME 462) were allotted an average daily budget of $2 for the past week. Informally dubbed “poverty week”, the assignment aims to help prospective biomedical engineers better understand the scarce lifestyles and living conditions they are planning to design solutions for.
“Since everyone in this class is designing for a customer who is impoverished, it is important to understand what it is like to be poor,” Malkin said.
Students were asked to find ways to reduce their expenses to less than $2 a day for food, transportation and entertainment. Food included everything they ate or drank, excluding tap water. These restrictions extended to things paid for by third parties, meaning anything consumed at events or donated by friends still counted. Public transportation like the city or campus buses were permitted, but in all other cases the cost of gasoline was factored in. Entertainment included anything directly paid for—watching television on campus was allowed, for example.
Senior Kevin Ge said he resorted to eating whatever cheap foods he could scrounge up on West campus.
“I had never lived with such restrictions on my spending before,” he wrote in an email Monday. “I had to figure out ways to consume a diet that was cheap and somehow filling.”
His diet included noodles, bread and rice, as well as any eggs or cheap vegetables he could find. On a few occasions he settled on eating instant ramen out of an old mug, as purchasing a bowl would have put him over his budget.
Ge also said he noted a difference in his overall health, constantly feeling hungry and tired and having trouble focusing during the day.
Malkin said he is familiar with these kinds of stories. In an extreme example, a student became so hungry one year that he resorted to eating out of the trash.
But senior Caroline Taylor, who lives off campus in West Village, strictly regimented her lifestyle for the project. She kicked off poverty week with a grocery trip where she spent $12.50 on affordable, filling foods like bananas, rice, cottage cheese, black beans and frozen vegetables. She noted that, although living off campus made the assignment easier, the budget did not leave room for all of her essentials.
“It’s a pretty busy week … not having caffeine to get me going in the morning after a few hours of sleep was pretty challenging,” she said.
Taylor also experienced temptation in the form of generosity – receiving not one but three care packages from friends and family who didn’t understand that third party purchases still counted towards the spending limit.
Malkin tends to ask whether students’ parents encourage them to cheat in this way. Although they may discourage cheating on other assignments, parents have trouble conceptualizing “poverty week” as necessary coursework. Thinking about this difference in perception can be a challenge for some students, he said.
But some students discovered that the most difficult part of poverty is not struggling to provide for basic needs like food.
“The most difficult part is the social stigma. They can’t go to the bar or to a party with friends, or they can’t eat at the party, for example,” Malkin said.
Malkin noted that he hopes the week’s experiences will leave students with a better understanding of the true value of their daily expenditures.
“I do consider it a challenge, but one that should be undertaken—even if only for perspective,” Taylor said.
The students’ shared experiences contribute heavily to the value of the assignment, Malkin said.
“You cannot experience poverty week on your own. Many students get more out of the sharing of the experience than the experience itself,” Malkin said.