A Course that Designs for Sustainable Communities

By Caroline Delaire | April 6, 2016

CE209 StudentsIn 2007, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil and Dr. Susan Amrose leveraged their expertise and passion for sustainable impact by establishing “Design for Sustainable Communities,” a graduate-level course that trains students to develop technological solutions to address poverty in underprivileged communities.

Technology alone cannot eradicate poverty. Inadequate institutions, corruption, violence, societal norms, and insufficient regulations are often at the root of persisting inequalities and unnecessary human suffering. But in a number of cases, technology has improved access to basic services such as water, healthcare, education, hygiene, and electricity. It has also facilitated income-generating activities and improved overall livelihoods. “Design for Sustainable Communities” is grounded in the belief that technology can curb suffering in underprivileged communities, and that new generations of students can contribute with their educational experiences.

Learning by doing

The course is designed to give students hands-on learning experiences. Each year, teams of three to five students take on real-life projects proposed by non-profits or social enterprises working in vulnerable communities. In Spring, 2016, these six projects were selected:

  • A mobile-based application to facilitate the distribution of home solar energy systems in rural Côte d’Ivoire (client: Sage).
  • A single-home solar energy system for Haitian households (client: RE-VOLT).
  • A natural wastewater treatment system for a container-based sanitation enterprise in Kenya (client: Sanivation).
  • An ultrasonic sealing machine for manufacturing low-cost sanitary pads in India (client: Aakar Innovations).
  • A low-cost and energy-efficient warming solution for poultry sheds in rural India (client: Kesla Poultry Cooperative).
  • A point-of-use water treatment device for rural Californian communities exposed to contaminated groundwater (client: SimpleWater).

This year’s teams include a diverse group of students: 14 come from engineering disciplines, seven from the Master’s in Development Practice program, one from landscape architecture, and one from economics. Student teams will propose solutions that are technically sound and tailored to local conditions and resources (e.g. availability of materials, local norms and regulations).

The role of lectures

Lectures in the course are designed to guide student teams through problem-solving processes such as problem definition, stakeholder analysis, understanding the intended user, reviewing existing approaches, and defining appropriate cost metrics. Important concepts such as positive deviance, human-centered design, and impact evaluation are introduced. The lectures also introduce case studies from the emerging field of development engineering.

An ancillary goal of the course is to teach students non-technical skills critical to the success of real-life projects such as managing client relations, multidisciplinary team work, and effective project pitches. Although these skills are crucial for projects to succeed in real-life, students rarely have the opportunity to practice them in their graduate coursework.

A unique educational experience

“Design for Sustainable Communities” provides students with a rare opportunity to work in interdisciplinary teams and thus gain experience with problem-solving approaches that may differ from their own. In addition, this course pushes students out of their comfort zones: project goals can be shifting or vaguely defined, or simply fall outside students’ areas of expertise. To fill their knowledge gaps, students must seek help from multiple experts.

While these challenges do not come without frustration and discouragement, training students to make progress despite difficult constraints trains them to confront real-life problems after graduate school. Furthermore, progress and achievement under challenging conditions are extremely rewarding. At the end of the semester, students will feel empowered to make lasting impacts in developing communities.


Caroline Delaire is a PhD Student in Environmental Engineering and a graduate student instructor for “Design for Sustainable Communities.”