The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance encourages student innovation.

Small-scale farmers in East Africa must brave stubborn land, an unforgiving climate, and pests as they try to bring food to market—and, hopefully, escape poverty.

But with a simple greenhouse cobbled together with plastic sheets and pipes, life could be very different, in the opinion of a group of Penn State University students who have invented such a design.

The students displayed a model of their structure in the Smithsonian Museum of American History last week during the Open Minds 2013 conference, an annual technology showcase held by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

In the museum’s atrium March 23, each student team stood alongside model prototypes of the works they’ve crafted specifically to improve peoples’ lives. A group from Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., for example, showcased a computer program that can decipher how others are feeling based on the sound of their voice and other social cues. The program is designed to help people with autism.

Showcase participants must take a comprehensive approach with their invention, said Arianna De Reus, a sophomore from Penn State’s affordable greenhouse team. The team is run through the school’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program.

Two people can assemble the low-maintenance, durable greenhouse structure in two days, she said. The greenhouses retail for about $550 and are easily expandable so farmers can grow their business.

“A lot of organizations and NGOs, they just donate these kind of technologies,” said De Reus, from Hollidaysburg, Pa. “But if we partner with for-profit entities that create sustainability in the business model, we can just keep going and have a social impact.”

NGO is a term for a nonprofit, voluntary nongovernmental organization.

The Penn State program had students interview farmers and conduct field-testing where products would be sold—from Kenya and Rwanda to Madagascar. They also identity for-profit manufacturers and banks willing to help get the venture “beyond the dusty prototype on the shelf,” said Jennifer Keller Jackson, a grants manager with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

After four years of work, Penn State’s affordable greenhouses are now being mass manufactured and sold in Kenya by the company Mavuuno Greenhouses, De Reus said. The program also licensed its invention in Rwanda and is in the early exploration stage in five more countries, including Guatemala and Vietnam.

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges, said De Reus, who traveled to Kenya with the group last semester. For example, she learned Rwanda would pose a special challenge as soon as she crossed the border.

(Next page: Other winning student projects)

Add your opinion to the discussion.