New Global Reach for Sustainable Community Projects
Columbia Engineering’s First-Year Design Course is going global, giving students the opportunity to build upon the program’s stateside success to work on numerous sustainability projects around the globe. In addition to pursuing ongoing projects in New York City, students will be able to work on sustainability projects in communities in Ghana, South Africa, Haiti, and Guatemala.
First-Year Design Projects 2010–2011
Solar water heater
Biosand water filter
Silver colloidial water filter
Rainwater harvesting system
Gray water system
Drip irrigation system
Improved cook stove
Technologically feasible refrigerator
Solar light/cell phone charger
Brick making machine
“Green” building materials
“Our students are being trained to become global engineers and leaders; providing the opportunity for students to think about design in a global context at the very start of their engineering education is a truly excellent augmentation,” says Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Professor Patricia Culligan.
Originally a straightforward modeling class for incoming students, the course has evolved into an innovative design course integrating community-based learning, with students working actively on real projects in the community. The course cuts across academic departments, combining technical and professional training with social awareness. “This format gives students real-world experience right at the start of their undergraduate educations and helps them understand the social implications of engineering design,” says Senior Vice-Dean Mort Friedman.
Sustainability offers just the sort of interdisciplinary problem space that works perfectly for students. The global communities face enormous economic and environmental challenges, especially in the areas of energy, water, and waste. Just like in the New York City version, students learn engineering design by working in teams on real projects for clients in the community, often community-based organizations or local social innovators. Students can choose both the communities they will work with and the projects they take on.
The new focus on environmental and economic sustainability also dovetails with the course’s emphasis on hands-on learning.
Now, each project requires students to identify pressing local needs, design a technological solution, then build and test it. As part of their training, all students must master a suite of design software and demonstrate the ability to integrate complex calculations into their projects.
The challenge is to develop solutions that are culturally appropriate, economically feasible, and environmentally sustainable. That means both the materials and tools used must be accessible and affordable to local residents. So students have to research inexpensive materials (which are often used, discarded, or recycled) that are readily available within their target community. Deliverables will include do-it-yourself guides that will be fully accessible to target communities.
At the end of the semester, students, instructional staff, and clients will vote on the best technology projects in each class. These will be made available, free of charge, on a Columbia website. The enhanced format is a win-win for students and the community. Students gain technical skills while providing real solutions for at-risk communities in New York City and in the developing world. And clients get access to simple, easy-to-build designs that are practical, culturally appropriate, and sustainable.