In Nicaragua, Yale Engineers Form New Partnerships for Clean Water

Although “Environmental Technology in the Developing World” is the newest course taught in Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID), it already has a reputation for being different from any other course offered by the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Like many CEID courses, the course — taught by Jaehong Kim, the Barton L. Weller Associate Professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering — tasked students with working on a real-world problem under the mentorship of an actual “client” who works in the field. But unlike in other CEID courses, every student in Kim’s course collaborated on the same project, for the same NGOs, to better the lives of the same villagers.

And that’s what made possible one of the course’s most notable features: a research trip to Nicaragua.

“This course is an opportunity for the next generation of researchers not only to learn about preventable water- and sanitation-related diseases, but also to actually make a difference,” said Kim. “To me, that means organizing the class based on what a particular community or organization needs, and then going to that community to perform scientific research that can help that organization.”

To this end, the course was structured so that the trip abroad lay at the center of the student experience, both in terms of importance and organization. In the six weeks leading up to the trip, the students developed individual proficiencies in scientific tasks they’d use in their field research in Nicaragua, from detecting chemicals in water with a colorimeter to analyzing the fine particulate air pollution from simple stoves; then, in the weeks after they’d collected their data and returned to Yale, the students spent class time analyzing the results and preparing a report on their findings.

At the heart of it all was their eight-day research intensive in Nicaragua, where the students worked in collaboration with two NGOs: Amigos for Christ, which operates in Chinandega, and Comunidad Connect, which operates in Jinotega. “I’ve worked with these NGOs from the beginning, listening for what problems might become projects worth doing,” said Kim. “And then I have buy-in, so not only are the NGO staff working with us while on location, but they’re also the people with an investment in the outcome — they’re waiting for the results, waiting for our final report. Then the students work hard not because they want a good grade but because they’re passionate about improving lives. They hear that a staggering 1.5 million children die each year of preventable diseases in the world, mostly developing countries including Nicaragua and they know that their work might bring that number down, even just a little.”

The trip abroad also afforded students the opportunity to perform research in a place where they couldn’t expect perfect lab conditions — a sometimes unpredictable challenge. For example, Hannah Fornero’s role was to analyze the ceramic pot filters that Comunidad Connect gives the residents of Jinotega to reduce drinking water pathogens. Based on her research during the course’s first few weeks, she planned to complete all filter tests on site, then analyze the data at Yale.

Testing the filters, however, turned out to be much more difficult than expected. The filters, made of clay and sawdust, are somewhat fragile; and even when Fornero removed the filters from the pots undamaged, none of the adhesives she had access to made a water-tight bond between the filter piece and her other equipment. After many hours of frustration, she determined that the tests could not be completed without additional resources.

“That kind of frustration is true to the experience of being an engineer,” said Kim. “You plan, you fail, you get frustrated, you hope again, you fail again, feeling that it’s impossible — until some alternative plan finally does succeed. In the end, Hannah brought pieces of the filters back to Yale, and with help from the CEID staff and the tools in the CEID’s John Klingenstein Design Lab, we achieved exactly the outcome we were targeting.”

Chemical engineering major Rahul Kini ’15 agreed that, for him, much of course’s appeal was in the challenges of fieldwork. In fact, he added, unexpected problems were useful tests of what kind of engineer he’d become over the past three-and-a-half years. “In the lab everything is given to you: if you break a beaker, you buy another one; if something catches on fire, you replace it immediately,” he said. “But in the field, you have a finite amount of equipment, a finite amount of resources, and things always go wrong. That’s frustrating, but then it feels so good when you figure out how to work around it.”

Yet Kim is also quick to point out that the technical difficulties are only one side of the learning experience, and many of the engineering problems the students faced in Nicaragua were rooted in human nature. For example, when environmental engineering major Maddy Landon ’16 tested the additive chlorine levels at the first house she visited in Chinandega, everything looked good. But at later houses, especially as her testing carried into the afternoon, the samples had ineffectively low levels of chlorine that would make it possible for animals, flies, and dirt to reinfect the water.

“It was clear that chlorination system was working how it should,” said Landon. “But Chinandega was founded long before the village had a reliable water source. What’s happening now is that the villagers still believe they might run out of water any minute, so they collect the properly chlorinated water in plastic containers and cement tubs, perhaps with or without lids — at which point the chlorine evaporates easily. It was a disappointing finding in some ways, but even that kind of human data is meaningful and can help our partners.”

The students noted both the technical and the cultural problems in their final report, which they will deliver to both Amigos for Christ and Comunidad Connect. “It’s not every day we have such a capable team looking at one of our programs with a magnifying glass,” said Jon Thompson, co-founder and board president of Comunidad Connect. “A lot of the work we do is in creating models for grass roots sustainable development, and the students’ report could go a long way towards both justifying and also improving that work.”

For his part, Kim sees opportunities for change at every level of the course: the collaborative efforts between the Nicaraguan villagers NGOs might be bolstered and improved with new evidence to shape future projects; the NGOs themselves might receive feedback and analysis of their practices that can position them for grants that might expand their reach; and the students receive a life-changing experience that might shape them as engineers and as people.

“This course is so obviously different from any other course I’ve been in,” said Landon. “It was a real-world application like I’ve never seen before in a class.”