I recently worked with a group of Engineering students designing an eco-flush latrine for a community in rural Tanzania through a yearlong intramural project. Through background readings and Zoom conversations, they learned about health and education problems associated with poor sanitation. Namely, due to lack of functioning latrines in schools and homes, and waste run-off associated with climate change, flooding and reliance on pit latrines, community health issues were rampant. They also learned about the potential of a newly procured technology that uses local soil to produce interlocking bricks. The students were challenged to design a sanitation system that could convert human waste to usable fertilizer, while controlling odor and leveraging the new brickmaking technology.
This was undoubtedly a big project, and not surprisingly, the students seemed a little overwhelmed at first. To establish context, they met virtually with Stephen Marwa, our Tanzanian partner and a US-based nonprofit with experience in interlocking brick construction and eco-latrines. While the students worked to scope the challenge and design elements, they also grappled with the limitations of working remotely during the evolving pandemic. As their mentor, I too struggled, wanting to give them enough structure while allowing for ownership of the project and acknowledgement of the inherent ambiguity. Despite the early challenges, the dynamics shifted mid-year and the team found its groove. They settled on an EcoSan model and began mobilizing their efforts to develop necessary skills and expertise, consulting with partners to refine their evolving vision.
Just a week ago, I participated in the team’s final presentation and was amazed at how far they had come. Their design was compelling and their logic sound, but their confidence is what impressed me the most. They spoke with the authority of lived experience, sharing insights and responding to questions with ease. They talked about the implementation of the design with certainty. Not only were they sure it would be built, but many committed to supporting its construction, working collaboratively to see the project through. They recognized that funds would need to be raised, but were undaunted and motivated by the possibilities.
The significance of this project is palpable, and I have begun to recognize its common pattern. Following the completion of this project (and others), students will continue to build on their experiences in support of academic and professional goals. Through letters of recommendation, I will reflect on their commitment, ability to grapple with complexity, cultural competency, problem solving and communication skills. Our students will continue to thrive and grow in exciting ways. And our partners will also leverage their engagement, building on projects toward additional opportunities and new ideas to be activated through collaboration.
This is the potential of high-impact project-based learning. And when I reflect on my own work and the evolution of our Project Portal and digital badge system, I am inspired by all that is possible. It is through harvesting and supporting collaborative projects, and working directly with NGOs and their leaders, that together we can steward the SDGs and prepare students to find their place in the world.