The MakeShift Challenge: Save a Farm from Drought

Energy & Sustainability Science
The MakeShift Challenge: Save a Farm from Drought

[This “MakeShift Challenge” column originally appeared in Make: Volume 04, 2006.]

This MakeShift challenge is brought to you by Dean Kamen and the creative team at DEKA. Dean and his team will also be participating in the analysis and winner selection. And remember: Don’t be afraid to kiss frogs!

The Scenario

You’re driving through a remote region of Mexico that is currently experiencing severe drought conditions. From the road, you see a family working desperately to keep their crops irrigated by carrying buckets of water. A quick scan of the farm leads you to believe that you can help. You pull over and introduce yourself (en español, por supuesto). You learn that the pond level has dropped due to the unusually dry summer, and the stream that it normally feeds has stopped flowing. This family of five has been doing their best to keep the crops watered, but it is clear that their attempts are doomed to fail given the severe heat, distances, and carrying capacities involved. These crops represent this family’s food for the winter, annual income, and seed for next year’s crop. Una solución elegante a este problema difícil es necesaria.

The Challenge

Create a makeshift solution to irrigate the crops using water from a pond that is about 50 meters away from the field. You need to raise the water 1 meter in order to restore flow to the stream. There is about a hectare (100 meters squared, a little more than 2 acres) of cropland. You need to pump about 50,000 liters each day for the next three months to adequately irrigate the field. You have about a week before the crops die.

Supply List

(1) metal barn with a host of industrial farm equipment (e.g. wagon, tiller, mower, etc.)
(1) dilapidated greenhouse, with most of its glass and associated equipment intact
(1) broken-down farm tractor
(3) donkeys
(1) old oil tank, approximately 1,500-liter capacity
(3) oak barrels, about 200-liter capacity (not water tight)
Numerous rolls of black and clear 4 mil plastic, about 1mx50m each

Winners were determined by the quality of the explanation and presentation. The most plausible and most creative solutions got Make: T-shirts and a SWISSMEMORY USB Victorinox 512MB.

Analysis, Commentary, and Winners

Few people know that part of the hiring process at Dean Kamen’s research and development firm, DEKA, is a sort of real-time MakeShift challenge: applicants are brought into a large conference room where Kamen and a dozen of his top engineers rapid-fire seemingly unsolvable problems at the aspiring makers in order to observe and evaluate their problem-solving prowess. It is trial by problem solving, and the faint of brain need not apply.

It is in this same spirit that Dean’s team offered the MakeShift problem for Make 04: a rural setting in Mexico, summer drought conditions, and a family in need of a water irrigation solution ASAP.

MakeShift 04 — Matthew Sparks’ Most Plausible Winning Entry
MakeShift 04 — Mark Trageser’s Most Creative Winning Entry
MakeShift 04 — Vinnie Forgione’s “Zeno of Elea” Honorable Mention
MakeShift 04 –Bobby Joe Snyder’s “Hans Christian Andersen” Honorable Mention

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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