DevEng Team Creates Toolkit for Decision-Makers Aiding ‘Doubly Vulnerable’ Populations

“FireTools,” developed in DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” brings a wide array of resources under one umbrella for local decision-makers to use to improve disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — with a particular emphasis on doubly vulnerable communities.

Fall 2023's DevEng C200 class (Amy Pickering photo)
Fall 2023’s DevEng C200 class (Amy Pickering photo)

In California, it’s hard to overstate the impact of climate change–fueled wildfires: Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a 320-percent increase in burned areas, 268 lives lost, and in just the past five years, an estimated $60 billion in lost revenue.

At the national level, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is also concerned about wildfires as it focuses on post-disaster recovery, and there exist a variety of wildfire-resilience toolkits meant to guide decision-makers’ efforts to help people prepare for and recover from wildfires. But according to Erica Anjum, there is not enough attention on low-resource areas. These communities are doubly vulnerable: not just at greater physical risk from wildfire but also facing “intersectional social vulnerabilities,” says Anjum, a city and regional planning graduate student. Indicators of these can include, but aren’t limited to, income, housing status, age, and disabilities. “Different vulnerabilities render people vulnerable in different ways — all of which are relevant in planning resilient communities,” she says. 

Enter “FireTools,” an online toolkit prototyped by Anjum and her graduate-student teammates in DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies.” Their toolkit brings a wide array of resources under one umbrella for local decision-makers to use to improve disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — with a particular emphasis on doubly vulnerable communities. 

FireTools is a hub for resources such as community- and fire-mapping tools, funding sources, landscaping best practices, evacuation preparedness and resilience centers, and data-privacy considerations — all things decision makers rely on when assisting and preparing communities before, during, and after catastrophes.

“Apart from the very crucial impact on loss of lives and property, the intervention will lead to more collaboration between stakeholders in the fire preparedness, resilience, and recovery spaces,” said Master of Development Engineering student Titli Thind. “The process of building the toolkit has spurred conversation between previously disconnected key decision makers, and we hope that this continues.”

DevEng C200, a core MDevEng course open to grad students from a variety of backgrounds, provides an opportunity for students to partner with professionals to tackle problems that require the skills of Development Engineers. That process requires understanding the focus area’s stakeholders, end users, and their contexts; testing hypotheses for effective technological intervention; iterating these solutions’ designs; evaluating their efficacy; and proposing a way for scaling up their use. 

Professors Amy Pickering and Mathieu Aguesse lead the class. Class projects have included an app for farmers to engage with one another, build community, and monitor the health of their wetlands; a comprehensive handbook for more efficient greenhouses for farmers in the climate change–impacted eastern Himalayas; expanding and diversifying the products and market for plastic-recycling social enterprise Takataka Plastics; a mobile platform, focused on data-governance management, that allows for the collection, sharing, and analysis of data from low-resource settings; analyzing and modeling the widespread deployment of a water-chlorination device; a simple-to-use, easy-to-carry solar-powered water pump; an affordable, foaming soap dispenser; improving the outcomes of unhoused people with a better online platform that’s used by both unhoused folks and San Francisco caseworkers; and the improved integration of frontline public health workers in a platform that provides primary-care services in Guinea. 

Along with Thind and Anjum, FireTools was developed by Xuan Huang (MDevEng), Kanyawee Srikulwong (development practice), and Ashley Woodward (civil and environmental engineering).

The team started with research data on wildfire resilience, practices from other fire-prone regions like Australia, and 14 case studies of communities and their decision makers who have faced fires before. They spoke with first responders and planners from previously hard-hit California communities. Their due diligence brought to light specific problems that the team sought to address, such as multiple authorities or organizations collecting the same data in the same communities post-fire (which risks retraumatizing vulnerable fire survivors) as well as some neighborhoods’ lack of accessible evacuation routes. 

“This project is a great example of how valuable it was to interact with the wildfire toolkit’s end users to create a product that addresses their needs,” Pickering said.

The tools in the kit — such as a post-fire data-collection process and landscaping best practices — evolved and grew with further stakeholder interviews and feedback, culminating in the website, a toolkit distribution plan, and a business model. The plan is to provide the toolkit to primarily local decision-makers and planners for free, with the team proposing funding for growing, improving, and testing it from primarily federal agencies with a stake in disaster-resilient communities.

The team built its toolkit as a “living document,” where the at-risk communities themselves can share their own insights and experiences to further refine authorities’ ability to help them. Those same authorities can use the toolkit to further inform their disaster planning and coordinate with other agencies with whom they’ve historically had limited collaboration. 

This whole process of producing a technological intervention in accordance with end users’ needs, however, is not over once the toolkit is put to use; it won’t be much good if it’s not sufficiently achieving its goals. 

So, the team plans to measure their solution’s efficacy by, among other standards, the number of planners who take up the toolkit, collecting feedback from decision-makers in places hit by wildfires, examining whether its use has streamlined data collection, and whether doubly vulnerable populations’ trauma associated with collecting sensitive data after a catastrophe — worsened by duplicative surveying — has been reduced. 

Researchers from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Merced will continue working on the toolkit, Anjum says. But regardless of how the toolkit may have to be adapted, its goals continue to be reduced loss of life and property, improved data collection and interagency dialogue, and all-around better wildfire preparedness and resilience. 

“We want to share our experiences and expertise,” one local planner and survivor of the record-breakingly deadly and destructive 2018 Camp Fire had told the team, “so others don’t lose as much as we did.”

Patricia Quaye: Empowering Rural Women and African Culture Through Fashion

SHE uses sustainable fashion design to empower talented rural women to break free from generational cycles of poverty while promoting rich African heritages to the world. The project helps women with years of skilled seamstressing experience who find themselves disregarded or deemed incapable due to the rural environment and a male-dominated society.

Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)

By Alisha Dalvi
Political Science, Global Poverty & Practice ’24

In the summer of 2021, Patricia Quaye took a 15-hour journey from her home in Awutu Breku, a small town in Ghana, to Berkeley to be a part of the inaugural cohort of the Master of Development of Engineering program, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. While she was 7,000 miles away, her heart remained close to home, and in the summer of 2022, Quaye went back to Ghana to build on her organization dedicated to giving back a better livelihood to her community. 

Quaye had founded SHE 4 Change in January of that year as both a business and a foundation to provide women in her community with more opportunity; SHE stands for Support Her Empowerment. “That is exactly what the project is doing,” says Quaye. 

Patricia Quaye in a colorful top from SHE 4 Change featuring traditional African prints and matching handbag
Patricia Quaye wears SHE 4 Change, featuring traditional African prints. (Courtesy photo)

SHE uses sustainable fashion design to empower talented rural women to break free from generational cycles of poverty while promoting rich African heritages to the world. The project helps women with years of skilled seamstressing experience who find themselves disregarded or deemed incapable due to the rural environment and a male-dominated society. These women are often paid much less than what the cost of materials and their labor are worth. SHE aims to break this cycle of poverty by paying women fairly and expanding their market. Quaye took advantage of her time as a student in Berkeley to study the global market and adjust her designs to a broader range of individual tastes while sending the profits back to women in her community. The high quality of SHE apparel extends its customer base beyond those who can only afford the simplest clothing. 

Quaye recalls, from her conversations with the seamstresses, instances prior to founding SHE 4 Change where customers didn’t return to pick up their clothes after dropping them off for sewing, as they, too, were poor and may have later decided they could not afford the sewing costs after all. Some even refused to pay the previously agreed-upon cost. This leaves many women stranded. 

“Imagine going through four-plus years of training to acquire a skill, but because you are located in the ‘wrong’ place and people don’t know about your skill, you don’t grow professionally, and you can barely put food on the table,” Quaye says. 

Quaye’s cousin, a seamstress for over 15 years, inspired SHE 4 Change. When COVID-19 hit, Quaye saw her struggle — her cousin lost her few and only patrons to the pandemic, leaving her unable to afford even a basic meal. Quaye wanted to help and began looking for organizations that could assist skilled women like her cousin find patrons or obtain resources. But she couldn’t find any support, with many organizations unresponsive or simply declining to help. Quaye wanted to take matters into her own hands. 

A SHE seamstress sews with her own machine at her own home. The social enterprise plans to hire many more seamstresses before officially launching in the spring. (Courtesy photo)
A SHE seamstress sews with her own machine at her own home. The social enterprise plans to hire many more seamstresses before officially launching in the spring. (Courtesy photo)

Quaye’s project-based classwork in the MDevEng program required her to connect more deeply to the community she’s serving. After conducting research and interviewing women, she realized this was a challenge across many regions and communities in Ghana, not just for her cousin. Rural women often lack the tools to sew high-quality garments, therefore most individuals living in big cities and urban areas, who can afford higher quality wares, don’t “believe” in rural women’s capacity to produce the quality they require, she says. This limits seamstresses to rural markets with lower rates for their work hours. 

Quaye cites her own experience for her dedication to creating opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. “I grew up in a poor background,” she says. “I know what it means to not have opportunity. I know what it means to not have food on the table or know when the next meal you’re going to eat will be.” 

The SHE 4 Change logo holds cultural significance in and of itself: The “E” is a tribal Ghanaian symbol signifying sankofa. (Courtesy photo)
The SHE 4 Change logo holds cultural significance in and of itself: The “E” is a tribal Ghanaian symbol signifying sankofa. (Courtesy photo)

So over the summer of 2022, along with a summer job and internship, Quaye went back home to her small town of Awutu Breku to be hands-on with her fashion enterprise. This entailed working with her mother to create designs, searching for and purchasing fabric in Accra, Ghana’s capital, from female vendors, and bringing fabric and supplies back to the seamstresses who then sewed the designs using their own machines. While SHE seamstresses can repair existing clothing, they focus on making new ones from scratch, supporting women fabric vendors as well. These fabrics are traditional African prints and patterns which hold historical and cultural significance. The SHE logo itself showcases the traditional Ghanaian symbol of the sankofa in the “E,” a bird that signifies retrieving good from the past. 

The most valuable part of her time at home, however, was the face-to-face interaction she had with her team — getting to know the women in person rather than over the phone. She had met these seamstresses through her mother, a community organizer who encourages girls to get involved in political decisions that affect them. Her mother provided Quaye with connections and further instilled the importance of empowering the women around her. Quaye shared the excitement of the project with them, learned the impact it could have on them and their families, and came to better understand her seamstresses’ work environment. 

A pile of fabrics sourced from vendors in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Quaye typically finds her fabrics at larger markets in the city and brings them back to Awutu Beraku. (Photo by Patricia Quaye)
A pile of fabrics sourced from vendors in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Quaye typically finds her fabrics at larger markets in the city and brings them back to Awutu Beraku. (Photo by Patricia Quaye)

Nowadays, SHE’s piloting stage features six women, but Quaye plans to hire over a dozen more before an official launch. She officially registered SHE 4 Change as a company and a foundation, obtained a company bank account, and created social media accounts for the brand. 

More challenging are the finances. Quaye had used her Berkeley scholarship stipend to cover fabric, packaging, and other production costs. But she also went looking for funding from both NGO- and government-sponsored, women-oriented organizations to provide her seamstresses with reliable machinery to guarantee a better and safer working environment. As more profit comes in from an international customer base, equipment can be purchased to lower the seamstresses’ time and effort, thereby lowering the cost of labor. This then allows for their service to be affordable for their own community as well, creating a chain reaction of relieving financial insecurity. And as the foundation grows, Quaye hopes to train more women. “It’s important that this project allows women to empower themselves, so they can empower other women as well,” she says. 

Since graduating from the MDevEng program, Quaye has continued gaining experience as the sustainability coordinator at a retail company in the Bay Area, where she’s deepened her understanding of the clothing industry. In

Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)

July 2023, Quaye was awarded with the Mastercard Foundation Alumni Scholars Impact Fund, powered by the Big Ideas Contest. With this funding, she is building a SHE 4 Change Sewing Center in Awutu Breku, and in March will head back and officially launch the SHE 4 Change line of products. She hopes to get more funding through other channels to support the project. All the while, she continues monitoring the impact of education on women in Ghana and is committed to follow up with research that can expand the impact of SHE 4 Change and similar endeavors to more countries through the SHE 4 Change Foundation.

“I don’t want people to buy just to help the women, but because the women can produce quality products, and they feel the value when wearing the clothes,” she says. 

Indeed, Berkeley peers and teachers who have tried SHE 4 Change’s wares have loved them and become patrons. “The support from the DevEng department, my classmates and professors, always pushes me to know I am making an impact. It is like a family that is on the same mission with me,” she says. 

The MDevEng program itself has played a massive role in how she approaches her foundation, ensuring that she stays tuned to the needs and aspirations of the women on her team.

Going forward, Quaye hopes to see SHE 4 Change take off into a global brand known for empowering women while providing unique clothing. She also hopes to continue to break Eurocentric barriers by using fashion to showcase traditional African prints. Instead of having the world dig out culture and resources in Africa, she says, “we can bring the culture to the world by keeping heritage and local women alive through our garments.” 

Master of Development Engineering Graduates Second-Ever Cohort

Photo by Amy Sullivan

Yordanos Degu Zewdu clearly remembers the moment she decided to become a changemaker helping those most in need: as a young kid in Addis Ababa, on the way home from shopping with her mother, right before the start of the school year.

Degu Zewdu and her mother came across a father and his two children. He appeared ill and was begging desperately for food for his hungry kids. The suffering and desperation moved the young Degu Zewdu deeply.

“But as a kid, I had no means to help. So I stood there, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness,” she recalled. “My mother, the kindest person I’ve ever known, generously gave the father money to buy food for his kids, brightening their faces with joy.”

Yordanos Degu Zewdu (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Yordanos Degu Zewdu (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

In that moment, she realized that “when I grew up, I wanted to be in a position to help communities and families in need.”

Degu Zewdu, who continues fulfilling that promise as a Development Engineer, recounted the story to her peers and their families last Friday evening at the commencement ceremony of the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering program’s Class of 2023 — the second-ever cohort of what is likely the world’s first such degree program. The group of 30, hailing from 13 countries, crossed the stage at Banatao Auditorium following three semesters, an internship, and a capstone project.

“We are here to celebrate the hard work you have put into this program and to honor your commitment, your courage, your tenacity, and your compassion,” said Prof. Kara Nelson, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. “And we thank you for the work that you are doing to make this world a more just place, a more equitable place, and more peaceful. You are an inspiration to all of us.”

The Class of 2023 worked on projects ranging from tracking and optimizing plastic waste collection for recycling in Uganda, to household sanitation and hygiene in Ethiopia, to policy needs as California transitions to greater renewable energy.

Despite impressive accomplishments in the classroom and out in the world, the variety and magnitude of the world’s problems can make DevEng work feel “like planting a singular seed in a vast desert and hoping for a forest to grow tomorrow,” said the evening’s other student speaker, Anjali Ravunniarath.

Anjali Ravunniarath (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Anjali Ravunniarath (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“I stand here, with the same big problems and no easy solutions. However, I have found solace in this community in the last year and a half,” she said. “Together, we’ve dissected a lot of systems, understood parts of it, and occasionally tried to see if we could fix a few. The problems may not have disappeared, but our collective efforts make it seem less daunting, and that’s truly what I’m grateful for.”

This constant change-making journey won’t always be smooth sailing, counseled the evening’s commencement speaker, Ranjiv Khush, a water scientist, member of Marin County’s water board, and co-founder of Aquaya, a nonprofit producing data and tools to support universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Even the most accomplished development engineers, like Prof. Amy Pickering, don’t get it right every time, he said.

“Here’s the thing: Amy and all of our other heroes, they make embarrassing professional mistakes. They mess things up. They feel ashamed,” he said. “Just like us.

Ranjiv Khush (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Ranjiv Khush (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“The difference,” Khush added, “is that they’re really good at rolling with it. They shake it off. They refuse to let their mistakes define them. Be the same: Shake it off. Please, do not let your mistakes and your embarrassments dissuade you from anything or get in the way of your success.”

Prof. Dan Fletcher closed out the ceremony with a challenge to the newly minted master’s-degree holders: “I want to challenge you each day after this program, as you move on with your careers, as you find your passions, as you live your passions, to be the best person that you imagined you could be while you were in this program.”

It was a sentiment with echoes of advice Degu Zewdu had offered earlier in the evening.

“As we set forth on our individual journeys,” she said, “I urge each of you to embrace life’s unpredictability, step out of your comfort zones, show resilience, remain open to the countless opportunities that await. It is in these moments of growth and uncertainty that we will unveil the authenticity of ourselves.”

DevEng Photo Contest Winners Highlight Both the Promise and Fragility of Technological Interventions

Development Engineering is a field of research and practice that combines the principles of engineering with economics, human-centered design, entrepreneurship, natural resources, and social science to create technological interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. It’s a technical field, one often rendered in blueprints, lines of code, and physical devices.

But depicting DevEng to lay audiences is vital not just to raising the field’s academic profile but to growing the capacity of a discipline that tangibly improves lives as well as to highlight the richness and complexity of the communities DevEng aims to serve.

Each summer, students in UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering program and the PhD designated emphasis in DevEng implement DevEng interventions close to home and far away, documenting their work and their environment as they go. This year’s DevEng Photography Contest highlights the best of this summer’s photos and videos, from the sometimes-precarious state of electrical power in rural places to novel technologies for delivering medicines and medical supplies. (Coincidentally, the three winners were captured in the same country.) Jacob Seigel Brielle and Isaac Seigel-Boettner, the talented Cal-alum duo behind Pedal Born Pictures, joined DevEng staff in judging this year’s submissions.

 

1st place

“The fragility of rural power”

Samuel Miles, PhD student, Energy & Resource Group; DevEng designated emphasis

“This is a picture of a young boy carrying out his chores in rural Rwanda,” says Miles. “The background shows rural infrastructure — in this case, a sagging power line held up by a local tree. It encapsulates the opportunities and challenges of modernity — the possibility that the boy grows up benefiting from electricity, but also the dangers poor planning represents to safety.”

Judges commended the great intersecting lines in the composition and how the photo’s symbolism deepens the more one dives into the image.

 

2nd place

“Zipline Drone Landing”

Rachel Dersch, Master of Development Engineering student

 

Dersch’s video depicts a medical delivery done landing. The company behind it, Zipline, is a Silicon Valley start-up operating in various African countries, including Rwanda. “They make deliveries constantly to all the hospitals in Rwanda that contain blood, medicines, and supplies,” says Dersch. The company provides “quality employment” for their staff in Muhanga, Rwanda, she adds, and is being considered for her research team’s sites for solar power and water filtration units, since they require a landing pad for deliveries. “The drones are a really cool adaptation for developing countries when the road infrastructure makes time sensitive deliveries like blood difficult to accommodate,” Dersch says.

Judges appreciated the depiction of a fascinating new technology being used for good — and the importance in DevEng of testing tech first.

 

3rd place

“Rural health clinic energy transitions in Rwanda”

Rachel Dersch, Master of Development Engineering student

“I like this photo because it showcases the complexity of working in rural locations where cows are grazing on hospital grounds next to new technology implementations,” Dersch says. “This photo was taken in a very remote location in the ‘Thousand Hills’ of Rwanda, a gorgeous place. We were at the location conducting qualitative interviews on the energy transition at the health clinic and picking up power monitoring sensors.”

Judges recognized this photo for the deeper story and symbolism behind it. Plus, “these sorts of juxtapositions help explain more of the why behind DevEng,” Seigel Brielle says.

For the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a Look at Blum Center Students Working to Alleviate Poverty

October 17 was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a United Nations observance to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of those living in poverty and to uplift their voices to make their concerns heard. These goals are at the heart of the Blum Center’s mission, with academic, research, and extracurricular opportunities and initiatives encouraging students to consider poverty alleviation. The Center’s programs, including the Global Poverty & Practice minor, the Master of Development Engineering, Big Ideas Contest, and Health Tech CoLab, help undergrads and grad students find opportunities to get hands-on experience with alleviating the root causes and various manifestations of poverty locally and globally. 

By Alisha Dalvi

Left: Joshua’s organization, the TTI Foundation, showcases its objectives on its T-shirts. (Courtesy photo). Right: Joshua speaks at a public secondary school in Gwagwalada, Nigeria this past March to celebrate International Women’s Day. This was one of many schools Joshua and her team visited for their Tech Awareness Tour across Abuja. (Courtesy photo)

Keerthi Konda, a senior cognitive science major, completed the practice experience of her Global Poverty & Practice minor over the summer, providing geriatric and palliative care to rural populations of India. As a pre-med student, Konda knew she wanted to tailor her experience to increasing access to healthcare. Each day she assisted doctors and nurses working in outpatient geriatric clinics, home visits, and hospice services, as well as conducted financial surveys with the families of patients for a new integrated facility to scale up its current services and reach more people from surrounding areas.“The GPP minor has changed how I view poverty and inequality. By combining theory and practical application, I’ve realized that poverty alleviation work is layered, with different approaches best suited for different communities, rather than one universally effective solution,” says Konda. “It’s about empowering communities and building a support system so individuals have access to basic needs, rather than just financial assistance.”

Keerthi Konda, a senior GPP student, is also a peer advisor for the program (Courtesy photo).
Keerthi Konda, a senior GPP student, is also a peer advisor for the program (Courtesy photo).

October 17 was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a United Nations observance to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of those living in poverty and to uplift their voices to make their concerns heard. These goals are at the heart of the Blum Center’s mission, with academic, research, and extracurricular opportunities and initiatives encouraging students to consider poverty alleviation. The Center’s programs, including the Global Poverty & Practice minor, the Master of Development Engineering, Big Ideas Contest, and Health Tech CoLab, help undergrads and grad students find opportunities to get hands-on experience with alleviating the root causes and various manifestations of poverty locally and globally. 

Blum Center students have launched a company that works with a women’s cooperative to grow and raise food in a 100-percent circular, sustainable system; started a company that turns otherwise-unrecycled plastic into usable household goods; evaluated the effectiveness of outsider-supported health-clinic microgrids; created a platform for unemployed recent graduates to develop and highlight their professional skills; and supported efforts to provide healthcare to those transitioning out of incarceration. 

Excellence Anurika Joshua is a first-semester Master of Developing Engineering student from Nigeria in the MDevEng’s Healthcare Transformations track. In addition to her biomedical background, before coming to UC Berkeley Joshua spent four years involved in workforce development in Africa, where she helps women with digital skill training and job placement. 

When looking at graduate programs, Joshua sought something that would allow her to combine three elements: social development, non-profit management, and inclusion. “I sought a curriculum that is immersive in managing and driving change from a global perspective and that looks at development from a social enterprise perspective,” she says. “And, because of my background in both healthcare and workforce development, I wanted a program that was interdisciplinary. When I found the MDevEng program, I was like ‘This is it!’” 

Joshua began her workforce-development initiative after experiencing a trying period of her life. “I realized the African society I was in was not kind to helpless women and didn’t care about what you had been through,” she says. As a therapeutic activity, she would make animations for her son, using free, open-source apps. Not only did her son love them, but so did her followers on social media. Soon, businesses were asking her to do storytelling videos for their brands. “They were asking for my videos instead of my résumé,” she says. “Nobody was asking if I was male or female. Or if I was married or divorced. All they needed to see was my portfolio and that I did a great job and could deliver.”

After a few jobs, Joshua was able to purchase a laptop and establish a successful online brand. Then, in 2020, dozens of people asked her for help in moving their businesses online to keep afloat during the pandemic. That’s when she realized the need for digital skills, especially among women to bridge this gap 

Currently, Joshua trains women in English-speaking African countries, though she plans to expand to Francophone ones soon. The training ranges from basic computer skills to advanced skills like UI/UX design to software development. “I realized the issue of high unemployment amongst women wasn’t a lack of jobs,” she says, “but more of underemployment and the lack of employable skills.”

Her first training was with 35 women. Within only a few years, she says, she has empowered over 8,000 African women from across 35 countries to earn their own money and become self-sustainable by leveraging digital skills. 

“Students in GPP and DevEng are building their knowledge and skills about effective approaches to addressing poverty every day,” says Chetan Chowdhry, the Blum Center’s director of student programs. “They are thinking critically about how they can use their position as UC Berkeley students and soon-to-be alumni to support marginalized communities in ways that are respectful, ethical, and sustainable.” 

Meet Pun Praphanphoj: MDevEng Student and Prototype Engineer for Sustainable Solutions

Passion has led Praphanphoj to join the Master of Development Engineering program at UC Berkeley, where he focuses on sustainable design innovations. In his third and final semester now, he says he has enjoyed learning global development history and issues.

Pun Praphanphoj (courtesy photo)
Pun Praphanphoj (courtesy photo)

By Mengyuan Dong

With his passion for design and cars, studying automotive engineering came naturally for Pun Praphanphoj when he started college. Originally from Thailand, Praphanphoj spent his college years at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. There, he equipped himself with knowledge and skills in mechanical engineering and gained practical experience, from building a racing car for Formula Student Competition to interning in the fuel cell industry in Europe. 

Praphanphoj was determined to work in the car industry when graduating from college. However, after returning to Thailand and working at Toyota on developing embedded systems and autonomous vehicles for almost two years, he reconsidered. “I wanted to have more impact and not be like a cog in a machine,” Praphanphoj says, recalling why he was motivated to leave the car industry for a while and try something new. 

This led him to Energy Absolute PCL, a renewable energy service provider in Bangkok. Praphanphoj worked as a project manager designing greenhouses for farmers in the local area to grow organic vegetables, as well as designing battery-powered locomotives. The company had a dozen greenhouses where it partnered up with the farmers and sponsored them with equipment, seeds, and a market to sell these vegetables. For one particular project, Praphanphoj programmed a farming system that could control each crop’s condition individually and report plant conditions online, helping farmers better monitor and manage their crops. The experience taught him the importance of engaging with people and learning about their needs when designing projects. It also prompted him to pivot from an engineering role to pursuing a growing passion for bringing technological solutions to societal and environmental problems.  

Praphanphoj (white shirt) working at a greenhouse in Bangkok with Energy Absolute PLC (courtesy photo)
Praphanphoj (white shirt) working at a greenhouse in Bangkok with Energy Absolute PLC (courtesy photo)

“This experience also made me realize that engineering and tech alone will never solve any human complex issue without considering other aspects of the problem,” he says. “It converted me from truly believing in the power of tech alone to be more humble and holistic in my approach towards problem solving.” 

This passion has led Praphanphoj to join the Master of Development Engineering program at UC Berkeley, where he focuses on sustainable design innovations. In his third and final semester now, he says he has enjoyed learning global development history and issues. Through taking classes including DevEng 202: Critical Systems of Development, he became more aware of the more nuanced aspects of global development — and the long-lasting impacts development engineering could have on people and their communities. 

“They ground you in the knowledge that there are people not only working for monetary purposes, but for improving other people’s lives as well,” he says. 

Whether it’s with professors who’ve been doing the work of development engineering for decades or with fellow students from different backgrounds and countries, Praphanphoj says he values having conversations about how things should be done to create impact and change the status quo. With the MDevEng’s wide range of elective classes, he also took courses in other departments, learning innovative finance for development and natural climate solutions and global change. 

For a project-driven class, Praphanphoj took part in a project with Maia Africa, a Burkina Faso company specializing in producing mosquito-repellent products. Such products are particularly essential in regions of West Africa where the prevalence of malaria makes the local population vulnerable to mosquito-borne diseases.

The company had already introduced a mosquito-repellent ointment to the market. However, they sought a more innovative solution to disrupt the mosquito reproductive cycle directly. This is where Praphanphoj and his three teammates stepped in, devising a strategy to impede mosquito egg-laying, thereby curbing the growth of the mosquito population. They came up with a low-maintenance, low-cost, and water-based trap, which would lure female mosquitoes to come in and lay their eggs. While the product has not entered the production phase yet, Praphanphoj appreciated learning the process of designing this solution, along with the chance to present an economical and innovative technology to address a longstanding issue in the region.

Praphanphoj says growing up in Thailand and studying and working in Europe and the U.S. have shaped him into a flexible and open-minded person. “I think the ability to embrace and see things as they are and not imposing how things should be done is something that I’ve learned through traveling, studying and working in different places,” he says. “That’s a quality that I’m quite proud of.”

Such experiences enrich and shape Praphanphoj’s professional perspective as an engineer as well. He believes engineers should not only rely on their own past experiences and knowledge, but also listen to local people and learn from their experience about what the solution should be. 

“You need to make sure that you’re not playing the savior role here and trying to push whatever you think is best for them, but rather be someone who’s there to listen and accommodate what they want and make sure whatever you offer fits within the context of how they live,” he says. 

This summer, Praphanphoj was selected as an Engineering for Change fellow and currently works for Good Machine as a prototype engineer. He contributes to a project using observational balloons to track natural disasters in California. The team is now developing a system for balloon control at different altitudes while building additional testing capacity for system-level testing. 

Praphanphoj with a prototype of a race-car frame (courtesy photo)
Praphanphoj with a prototype of a race-car frame (courtesy photo)

And for his MDevEng capstone project, Praphanphoj is working with Takataka Plastics, a start-up co-founded by a Berkeley mechanical engineering and DevEng alum providing waste management solutions. His specific project addresses recycling issues in Uganda by optimizing the placement and frequency of the pickup locations of plastic collection bins around the city of Gulu. By the end of the fall semester, Praphanphoj will present the company with a recommendation to improve the program’s logistics and engage more residents to participate.  

Praphanphoj sees himself as a creator and designer who wants to use his skills to develop solutions or products that would be helpful to low-resource communities. After graduating in December, Praphanphoj says he’s interested in working in the renewable energy space, as well as in carbon capture and sequestration. Specifically, he wants to prototype and have fun in early-stage product development — something that hasn’t changed since his days building race cars.

“I do like working with my hands,” he says. 

MDevEng’s Third Cohort Arrives Ready to Tackle Global Challenges

On Aug. 22, the third cohort of the Master of Development Engineering program convened at Blum Hall for their orientation and the start of the first of three semesters of an interdisciplinary curriculum that revolves around developing technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. The Class of 2024 — 34 students in total — hails from 12 countries across four continents, but many arrived last week for breakfast and headshots already on friendly terms.

The Master of Development Engineering’s Class of 2024 (Valerie Moss photo)

Every August marks the arrival of fresh faces at UC Berkeley, and for the third year running, some of those new students will be earning the country’s — if not the world’s — first graduate degree in Development Engineering.

On Aug. 22, the third cohort of the Master of Development Engineering program convened at Blum Hall for their orientation and the start of the first of three semesters of an interdisciplinary curriculum that revolves around developing technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. The Class of 2024 — 34 students in total — hails from 12 countries across four continents, but many arrived last week for breakfast and headshots already on friendly terms.

In addition to being students in the burgeoning field that first coalesced at Berkeley, the cohort will also be active practitioners and shapers of it. When digitally polled about what they thought “Development Engineering” means, “dignity” was the first reply to hit the giant screen of Blum Hall B100. “Flourishing” and “communities” were early leaders in the live word cloud, but “innovation,” “technology,” and “sustainable” became three of the class’ most dominant perspectives on their new area of study and practice. 

The appearance of “diversity” prompted a discussion that got at the heart of DevEng. Hussein Orekoya, a civil engineer from Nigeria, elaborated: Diversity in innovation, he said, meant recognizing that “a solution that might work here in California might not work in Africa.” 

In addition to working in civil engineering in Lagos, Orekoya is the founder and executive director of My Environment is Mine Initiative, a youth-led organization promoting sustainable development across the continent and guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. His classmates arrived in Berkeley having done everything from petroleum chemistry to AI and robotics in government.

The MDevEng Orientation scavenger hunt took new master’s students all over campus, including Doe Library. (Hussein Orekoya photo)

Following a round of icebreaker bingo — filling in squares by finding new classmates who fit criteria like owning a pet or starting their own social venture — the cohort broke off into groups for a campus-wide scavenger hunt, a particularly important geographical orientation considering their elective classes this fall span 10 departments.

That interdisciplinary breadth — and DevEng’s focus on the big-picture context of complex problems — make the MDevEng “the program I wish I could have taken when I was a student,” Prof. Kara Nelson, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, told the new cohort, which started classes the following day.

But students, she said, will have to pair tenacity with working in interdisciplinary teams and digging deeply to understand the local contexts of the problems they’re solving for. It’s not easy work, she warned. “You have to be fearless and never give up.”

“It’s so daunting,” Nelson said, “but it’s so fun.”

In the AI Era, Blum Center Students and Alumni Find Ways to Apply the Technology for Social Good

Yet even before AI took center stage this past year, students and alumni of the Blum Center for Developing Economies were embracing the emerging technologies’ potential, specifically for social good. From detecting “deepfake” videos to analyzing agriculture changes and building understanding across communities, Blum Center folks share their experiences, inspirations, and the impact of their AI-driven projects and ventures. 

Sarah Hartman, a PhD candidate in ESPM minoring in Development Engineering, analyzes historical and near-real-time satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine to map and categorize fields and landscapes to compare changes over time. She then relates these changes to other timestamped activities such as damage to transportation routes or local military activity. (Video by Sarah Hartman)

By Mengyuan Dong
Master of Journalism ’23

Only about a year has passed since DALL-E, the AI text-to-image model, and ChatGPT, the large language model–using chatbot, ushered in what feels like the age of AI: months of wall-to-wall news coverage of and personal experimentation with the most powerful publicly available artificial intelligence programs. But what started off as images of Darth Vader playing in the NBA and the near-instant generation of new bedtime stories have given way to concerns about how AI can contribute to disinformation campaigns, academic dishonesty, and even an end to whole classes of workers whose jobs can, theoretically, be done by machines.

Yet even before AI took center stage this past year, students and alumni of the Blum Center for Developing Economies were embracing the emerging technologies’ potential, specifically for social good. From detecting “deepfake” videos to analyzing agriculture changes and building understanding across communities, Blum Center folks share their experiences, inspirations, and the impact of their AI-driven projects and ventures. 

 

Shaping the battle against deepfakes

Raymond Lee (courtesy photo)
Raymond Lee (courtesy photo)

Back in 2019, Raymond Lee, a former Big Ideas Contest winner and a UC Berkeley alum, spotted the growing threat caused by deepfakes — media created using learning techniques that can swap faces, voices, and even entire bodies, making it appear as if someone is saying or doing something they never actually did.

While deepfakes became viral and raised public concerns, no technical solutions stood out then. Lee decided to initiate FakeNetAI, a deepfake detection SaaS (Software as a Service) that aimed to “protect against economic, societal, and political threats.” 

FakeNetAI began as Lee’s capstone project during his master’s program in data science, and it quickly evolved into a startup with the support of his teammates from data science, electrical engineering and computer science, and Haas MBA students. And through participating in the Big Ideas Contest, Lee connected with mentors, conducted market analysis, and developed a mature business plan. 

To train their machine learning model, Lee and his teammates curated a diverse dataset by employing open-source data sets, scraping raw data from YouTube, and collecting deepfake videos created using various methods. The team’s approach and the customized machine-learning architecture resulted in a detection accuracy of over 90 percent.

Since its victory in the Big Ideas Contest in 2019, the startup has successfully attracted media outlets, banks, and social media firms as customers. For NewsMobile, an Indian fact-checking site, FakeNetAI helped identify viral deepfake videos featuring prominent figures like Tom Cruise and Donald Trump. Moreover, it aided in verifying livestreaming videos during a critical moment of the Myanmar coup for another third-party fact-checker.

However, Lee acknowledges that the fight against deepfakes is far from over. The rapid proliferation of deepfake generation has still outpaced the development of detection expertise. Citing the research of Prof. Hany Farid from Berkeley’s School of Information, Lee emphasizes the urgent need for continued research in detecting these highly realistic manipulated videos.

“It’s like a cat and mouse game where you constantly have to outsmart the generation models with your detection model,” he says.

The other challenge is, because media comes in a wide range of formats, it takes a lot of work to train a machine-learning model that can perform well on all different formats. So the more generalized a machine-learning model is made to be, the less accurate it becomes.

FakeNetAI is still growing, and Lee is determined to stay at the forefront of innovation. He has also pivoted his career to do more general AI and data science consulting. “The image generation field has advanced at a rapid rate,” he says, “and there’s always a lot of interesting stuff going on in the video, image and text generation space.”

 

Understanding abandonment in Ukrainian agriculture amidst war

Sarah Hartman, a PhD student within Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, has been involved in the Digital Transformation of Development traineeship since last year, and will continue as a funded fellow for this upcoming year.

Before joining DToD, Hartman’s research interests in food and water led her to participate in the InFEWS program. What she enjoys the most about these programs is the opportunity to interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

“I’ve gained a lot intellectually by chatting with people,” Hartman says. “There were things that I learned from the other fellows that have helped reframe how I think about my research or have made me think about potential tools and methods that I hadn’t otherwise stumbled upon.”

In her research on water and agriculture, Hartman utilizes machine learning and AI to map changes and quantify the extent of agricultural activities. Her recent work involves training machine-learning models to analyze satellite images of Ukrainian agriculture during its war with Russia, with a specific focus on abandonment and its underlying drivers. 

The idea stemmed from a teaching experience when Hartman was a graduate student instructor for a Principles of Natural Resource Management class. As the war in Ukraine began during the semester, she noticed the students’ desire to understand the global impact of such events on natural resources and supply chains. She then decided to deliver materials around globalization with a specific angle of Ukraine. For instance, the country is one of the world’s breadbaskets, where fields of sunflowers, wheat, and corn provide food for some of the world’s most water-stressed and vulnerable countries, particularly many in North Africa. The abandonment of Ukrainian fields could cause serious food instability for its importing countries.

Inspired by the dynamic conversations in class, Hartman wanted to pursue a research project on the issue. “I took it personally,” Hartman says. “I’ve been learning how to use satellite images and machine learning to look at agriculture; what better place to do it than to help inform what’s happening in Ukraine in near real-time?”

Are fields abandoned because of a physical tank or destruction? Or because of supply chain issues such as farmers unable to get sufficient fertilizer or no longer able to sell their crop? Hartman’s research looks into these issues by analyzing satellite images and hopes to reveal what affects the overall resilience of Ukrainian agriculture. Specifically, she analyzes historical and near-real-time satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine to map and categorize fields and landscapes to compare changes over time. She then relates these changes to other timestamped activities such as damage to transportation routes or local military activity.

Besides technical analysis, Hartman hopes she could do more outreach and engagement with local communities in Ukraine that are directly affected, which has been challenging given the ongoing war condition. She says she would love to work with organizations with access to the groups. 

Hartman is captivated by the power of analyzing publicly available satellite images. She explains that researchers can access these images and gain insights into any part of the world, dating back to the 1980s or earlier. This accessibility proves particularly invaluable when collecting information on remote and resource-limited regions where data has historically been uncollected or lost. 

What an incredible opportunity to pair images that have been collected for tens and tens of years and use that to analyze things in a way that provides data that may not necessarily be possible otherwise,” Hartman says. “That’s what I see as the potential.”

 

Paving the way for empathy in the digital age

Kenan Carames, a current Master of Development Engineering student in the AI & Data Analytics for Social Impact concentration, is developing platforms that help people in different communities grow closer together in an online space. Already having a background in data analysis, he joined the program to pursue his interest in social issues and international development.

Kenan Carames (courtesy photo)
Kenan Carames (courtesy photo)

“There’s so much exciting stuff happening in AI both from a technical and social point of view,” he says. “And coming from an engineering background, I do have the opportunity to provide a more technical perspective in the social conversations.”

Over his two and counting semesters, Carames took classes on development issues and intense technical skills such as applied machine learning. A course called Politics of Information taught by Prof. AnnaLee Saxenian, also Carames’ mentor, sparked his interest in political issues around data and the social media space. His passion found a nurturing ground during his ongoing internship with Search for Common Ground Peace, a peacebuilding organization that aims to mediate conflicts and violent areas across the world. 

Carames recently worked on developing a chatbot for the organization to guide individuals in countries including Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, and Lebanon towards resources that promote empathy and mutual understanding. He primarily helped advance the user experience of the chatbot, which requires a lot of data analysis and visualization of how users interact with the product and which materials get the most engagement. The current structure of the chatbot is more like a decision tree or choose-your-own-adventure, Carames explains, but his team plans to use more natural language processing (NLP) to make it more dynamic and engaging in the future.

“It’s definitely different work than I’ve done previously. And it’s kind of cool to have these social goals that you’re working towards,” he says. “That feels very impactful.”

While Carames is still developing his MDevEng capstone project idea, he is determined to keep exploring efforts to build empathy in digital spaces. The concept of the project will be based on contact theory, he says. The theory holds that contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance under appropriate conditions, and he wants to experiment with it in an online space. 

From an engineering perspective, Carames will explore the system design and algorithm decisions he could make to ensure that when people from different groups come in contact with each other, they’re fostering understanding of each other rather than developing prejudice and hate. He has been learning from a project where researchers use question-and-answer website Quora to facilitate conversations about Israel and Palestine for people living in and outside these areas. 

“It’s a very heated topic, and how do you set up those spaces and design conversations to get people to engage each other in a helpful way?” he asked. “It’s very difficult and messy, but I think that’s why it’s interesting.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: How MDevEng Students Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger Investigated the Efficacy of Outsider-Supported, Off-Grid Power Systems in Remote Rwandan Health Clinics

Xhafa has worked in the development sector for a decade and graduated from the Master of Development Engineering program last December with a focus on energy and environment. The intersection of healthcare and energy was also the focus of another recent MDevEng graduate, Greg Berger. Together, Berger and Xhafa, both in the program’s Energy, Water, and the Environment track, examined the energy needs of healthcare clinics in one sub-Saharan country, Rwanda, as their MDevEng capstone project. 

Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger in Rwanda (all photos courtesy of them)
Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger in Rwanda (all photos courtesy of them)

By Alisha Dalvi

Health care is a basic human right and a core resource for achieving the UN-adopted Sustainable Development Goals. But fully sixty percent, or roughly 100,000, healthcare facilities across sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to reliable electricity, or to electricity at all. 

There is a well-documented correlation between energy access and positive health outcomes, a key reason why governments and development practitioners have committed to achieving universal electrification of health facilities by 2030. 

This problem is right up Ingrid Xhafa’s alley. Xhafa has worked in the development sector for a decade and graduated from the Master of Development Engineering program last December with a focus on energy and environment. The intersection of healthcare and energy was also the focus of another recent MDevEng graduate, Greg Berger. Together, Berger and Xhafa, both in the program’s Energy, Water, and the Environment track, examined the energy needs of healthcare clinics in one sub-Saharan country, Rwanda, as their MDevEng capstone project. 

Berger has always had a profound interest in energy. With a background in mechanical engineering, he plans to use his education to implement sustainable energy technologies in an equitable way. “Energy is pivotal to the foundation of modern human activities,” he says. “And it’s important to implement sustainable solutions by working with communities that did the least to contribute to the climate crisis but are hit the worst.” Xhafa, on the other hand, came in with a master’s in public policy and knows the impact policy has on resource allocation in energy and elsewhere.

An off-grid solar-power system
An off-grid solar-power system

In Rwanda, Berger and Xhafa worked with Daniel Kammen, Professor of Energy and head of Berkeley’s Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL), who has long worked on evaluating the potential for off-​​grid power in the country and other nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Kammen became their MDevEng capstone advisor and helped kickstart the project by guiding research and remote work. 

During the spring of 2022, Berger and Xhafa examined how Rwanda’s challenges with access to energy in remote areas have led to the implementation of new infrastructure such as off-the-grid systems that rely on solar panels to power small and medium-sized needs. Standalone off-grid solar has the potential to improve health services in remote villages with insufficient grid infrastructure. However, historically, most of these interventions have happened as ad-hoc initiatives from outside development practitioners, and the infrastructure’s maturity and sustainability has to be vetted.

Trained as engineers, but now with training in low-resource settings, both Xhafa and Berger knew these solutions needed to be assessed from multiple perspectives: technical robustness and feasibility, business model sustainability, and socio-cultural impacts. “The MDevEng program played a huge role in how I look at development interventions, as well as challenges to look out for in implementation,” says Berger.  

Throughout their program, Berger and Xhafa worked with RAEL to analyze data from remote monitors placed in six Rwandan healthcare facilities to assess power quality and reliability generated by standalone solar boxes. PhD student Samuel Miles from RAEL had added remote sensors to them over a year ago to collect data on how well the stand-alone systems were operating in the country, without the need for someone to be constantly on-site to check. From there, Berger and Xhafa conducted in-depth analyses, asking questions like, “Does the existing energy system fulfill the needs of the clinic?” and “Are there more opportunities or challenges for more electricity?” and “Are there power disruptions throughout the day that are detrimental to the clinic?” 

Inside a healthcare clinic
Inside a healthcare clinic

But this technical analysis alone doesn’t paint the full picture of what leads to the success or failure of an intervention. Berger and Xhafa needed to have on-the-ground discussions with clinic staff and community members to gather insights about the impact of this technology in the day-to-day. Last summer, the researchers  spent a month in Rwanda examining eight health clinics, six of which had off-grid solar boxes installed with USAID support that provide solar power and clean drinking water to their facilities. The other two clinics were connected to the traditional power grid — a comparison point for understanding how the solar boxes’ electricity systems performed. 

The duo recalls their journey in the country filled with surprises, from four car breakdowns to the incredible hospitality of the Rwandan people and extremely easy collaboration with the local staff. On a day-to-day basis, Berger and Xhafa coordinated with locals to visit those eight healthcare facilities, and with the help of a local translator, they spoke with the head of each one, as well as their nurses and doctors, to grasp the specialized needs and testimonies of each clinic. They toured the clinics to conduct inventory, perform basic energy audits and analysis, and provided clinic staff with a survey to obtain measurable data. 

Xhafa and Berger meet with a clinic staffer
Xhafa and Berger meet with a clinic staffer

They found that most of these standalone systems provided quality power when operable, however differing clinic needs led to different levels of power consumption and down time. On top of that, the clinics were largely unable to fulfill their other objectives of providing electricity and water services to the community in a financially feasible way for the system operations. 

The RAEL team concluded that the intervention had poor site selection from the beginning; areas were not densely populated enough to earn revenue from the productive use of electricity. On top of that, these standalone solar solutions did not consider the arrival of government-provided grid infrastructure which would negate the need for standalone systems. Plus, Xhafa says, “one solution fits all” may not be the best approach for all energy projects in Africa. 

They also found the system sizing to be generic and that seasonal factors made a big difference in power adequacy. Involving the communities in the design and implementation processes could have avoided some of these problems. “We noted a lack of adequate training on system operation and uncertainty of how these systems will be sustainable once the equipment starts aging or when technical issues arise,” Berger says. 

By the end, Berger and Xhafa, in conjunction with RAEL, quantitatively showed the challenges of a one-size-fits-all power system, and they hope these insights can provide some crucial information for similar initiatives. Standalone energy systems can be vital in remote areas with no grid reach, they say, but alternative financial models have to be explored and the economics behind the productive use of electricity understood. 

Being trained with this mindset through the MDevEng program, the pair put a greater emphasis on the clinics’ communities, considering them as the customer of the solution and treating their testimonials as valuable insights alongside the hard data. Both Xhafa and Berger highlighted how valuable it was to have the community at the center of their research. 

“They are hardworking and ingenious people who can solve their own problems,” Xhafa says. “The solutions suggested by the locals have the highest opportunity to be successful.” 

Blum Center for Developing Economies 2022–23 Year in Review

The past year also witnessed momentous firsts in our Development Engineering community and some impressive triumphs by students well on their ways to making tangible impacts on real-world problems.

From left: The MDevEng class of 2022 (Amy Sullivan), Big Ideas winner High Tide (Chetan Chowdhry), the GPP class of 2023 (Amy Sullivan), and Introduction to Development Engineering (Springer)
From left: The MDevEng class of 2022 (Amy Sullivan), Big Ideas winner High Tide (Chetan Chowdhry), the GPP class of 2023 (Amy Sullivan), and Introduction to Development Engineering (Springer)

By Sam Goldman

This past academic year has, dare we say it, felt more or less normal. We were, in a most literal sense, finally and consistently together again.

After what felt like ages in a pandemic bubble of Zoom classes, working from home, and frightful news headlines, the Blum Center and Berkeley campus have returned to a state of relative and in-person normalcy: classrooms returning to capacity, events at Blum Hall multiplying, rediscovering the delight of cake and coffee at a staff meeting. While we remain vigilant in our health precautions, May 2023, the final month of the academic year, saw the end of COVID-19 as a WHO global health emergency — a hopeful coda to 2022–23.

The past year also witnessed momentous firsts in our Development Engineering community and some impressive triumphs by students well on their ways to making tangible impacts on real-world problems. Below are some highlights.

 

Welcome, MDevEng Class of 2023!

In August, the second-ever cohort of our Master of Development Engineering program arrived at Blum Hall to begin their three semesters of study. Hailing from 10 different countries, the class came in with experience in everything from designing shelters for victims of gender-based violence in remote villages in Indonesia, to prototyping and testing affordable greenhouses for hundreds of smallholder farmers in India, to developing solar power projects in Peru and Tanzania. 

The three dozen new grad students all seemed to agree on one thing at their Aug. 23 orientation, however: “The food in Berkeley is so good!”

 

Prof. Brad DeLong publishes book on economic history of the “long 20th century”

In September, economics professor and our chief economist Brad DeLong published Slouching Towards Utopia, an expansive account of the economic history and technological changes from 1870 to 2010, surveying “the monumental transformations — and failed promises — brought about by an extraordinary rise in prosperity.”

“While the past 150 years have solved the problem of baking a large enough economic pie for everyone to potentially have enough,” DeLong said, “the problems of properly slicing and then enjoying that potentially ample economic pie have flummoxed us as a species.”

The Financial Times and The Economist named Slouching Towards Utopia one of their best books of 2022.

 

Professors Gadgil and Madon publish Development Engineering’s first textbook

Speaking of books, a mere three days after DeLong’s book debuted, the first-ever textbook dedicated to Development Engineering hit publisher Springer’s website.

Civil and environmental engineering Prof. Ashok Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon of Haas School of Business edited the free-to-download Introduction to Development Engineering: A Framework with Applications from the Field, which racked up 30,000 downloads in its first few weeks.

The book features 19 case-study projects, from fintech for rural markets in sub-Saharan Africa to stopping arsenic poisoning in India to protecting electoral integrity in emerging democracies, along with four framework chapters on the field’s history, ethical challenges, and philosophical roots.

 

Our first Master of Development Engineering graduates!

In December, the inaugural MDevEng cohort received the U.S.’s (if not the world’s) first master’s degrees in Development Engineering. In designing and implementing interventions in accordance with and for people in low-resource settings, the 44 students’ capstone projects included a business for seamstresses in rural Ghana to sell their high-quality wares, advancing an initiative to bring arsenic-safe drinking water to rural cities in California, and a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers.

“You have become the precedent for what this program can and will become: a program marked by educating and equipping changemakers to develop innovative global solutions,” said commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo. “What a powerful vision, and each of you embodies that so much.”

 

Kara Nelson named head of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering

This past spring, civil and environmental engineering Prof. Kara Nelson was named head of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, where she oversees the growth and direction of our DevEng programs and initiatives.

Prof. Nelson took over from retiring mechanical engineering Prof. Alice Agogino, a key force behind the creation of our DevEng programs who also served, among many other positions and distinctions, as the Blum Center’s education director and leader of the MDevEng’s Sustainable Design Innovations track.

 

And this year’s Big Ideas grand prize goes to…

…High Tide, a Berkeley student duo replacing plastic coatings with bio-based coatings for single-use products that allow them to be composted and recycled. Of the 23 finalists at May 3’s Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day at Blum Hall, judges awarded Ivan Jayapurna and Kira Erickson the $10,000 grand prize. 

“The concept behind High Tide was born out of a realization that the majority of our paper products are destined for landfill, despite paper being a compostable and recyclable material,” Erickson said. “It’s an extremely pervasive yet less widely known issue. The potential for systemic impact is massive if addressed properly.”

2ndWind, which assists small- and medium-sized businesses once their owners retire, earned the Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT) “FinTech for Social Good” Initiative award. 

 

Global Poverty and Practice minor graduates its 16th class

Sixty more students — all of whom had to adapt their studies and practice experiences to pandemic-caused restrictions — joined the GPP minor’s 1,000-plus–member alumni community on May 15 in a commencement ceremony infused with gratitude and optimism.

“There is so much power in recognizing the process of working for change as its own reward: All one has to do is stay the course, regardless of where the path leads,” said one student speaker, Samyukta Shrivatsa. 

“GPP has been a process of tearing down everything we thought we knew about the world and rewriting the stories we tell about it,” she told her peers. And the story that GPP tells? 

“One of audacious hope in the world and each other.”

 

Thank you to our students!

We’ve had the honor of directly serving more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students this year — practitioners of poverty alleviation, health-technology innovators, development engineers, social entrepreneurs, and more. And we look forward to serving many more in 2023–24! Please let us know how we can help.

Recent DevEng Grads and Big Ideas Winner Aim to Bridge Professional Employment Gap for Young Nigerians

In the fall of 2021, Master of Development Engineering students Victor Okoro, Daniel Huang, and Joshua Iokua Albano, interested in education and helping Nigerians find jobs post-graduation, teamed up to found Madojo, a platform that connects Nigerian university graduates with employers in the technology space while helping the graduates gain sought-after skills through skills development, portfolio design, networking, and mentorship.

The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, won the 2022 Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Adam Lau / Berkeley Engineering)
The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, won the 2022 Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Adam Lau / Berkeley Engineering)

By Anehita Okojie

Nigeria is home to by far the highest number of startups in Africa, and over the past few years, these startups have received a large amount of venture funding — over $1 billion in 2022 by one estimate. These startups are looking to hire a local workforce, but a stark difference exists between the skills employers look for and the skills Nigerian applicants have when they graduate from universities. 

In the fall of 2021, Master of Development Engineering students Victor Okoro, Daniel Huang, and Joshua Iokua Albano, interested in education and helping Nigerians find jobs post-graduation, teamed up to found Madojo, a platform that connects Nigerian university graduates with employers in the technology space while helping the graduates gain sought-after skills through skills development, portfolio design, networking, and mentorship.

The team came to the MDevEng program from different career fields. Okoro, a native of Nigeria, worked in software engineering, and most recently as a technology architect. Huang’s background is in entrepreneurship, product development, and security consultancy. Albano has worked in machine learning and data engineering. 

The three channel all this experience into Madojo. Okoro, the team’s executive officer, was born and raised in Nigeria, has a personal understanding of the job market and economy of the country, and serves as the point of contact for Nigerian employers and students. Huang, Madojo’s technology lead, uses his product-development experience to design their curriculum. And coming from an engineering and design background, Albano has taken responsibility for the presentations and reports that Madojo puts out. 

Madojo is a “hybrid learning community that connects employers with university students in Nigeria,” Huang says. “The goal is to be able to close the experience gap that students have before starting their first job.” In Nigeria, students have access to experiential learning opportunities such as internships and undergraduate research positions, “but the overall economic structure is not robust enough to support them extensively, ” Okoro says. There is a need to democratize skills such as coding and writing computer programs because only a small percentage of university students follow through and learn these skills before entering the workforce. 

At the end of 2021, the Madojo team decided to apply to the Big Ideas Contest to move their idea forward. The competition provided critical structure, accountability, mentorship, and feedback. Albano found the process of pitching their project to be most beneficial because it taught the team how to “convince others that do not have the context or background [the team has] that this problem needs to be solved.”

 They were able to do just that. In the spring of 2022, judges awarded Madojo the first-ever Binance CharityLIFT Initiative Award. The LIFT FinTech for Social Good Initiative, a parallel contest to Big Ideas’ flagship competition, seeks to support students working on financial technology ideas to advance social change by unlocking the potential of these digital technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world—the very goal of Berkeley’s Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT), which focuses on research, experiential learning, and community building. “What better way to do this than by organizing a contest in which we focus specifically on financial technologies or blockchain solutions that are able to make an impact on people’s lives,” says Laura Chioda, the director of research at LIFT and the Institute for Business and Social Impact at the Haas School of Business. The FinTech for Social Good Initiative is made possible by the generosity of Binance Charity and Ripple Impact.

Madojo “provides students professional experiences in a setting that allows them to get feedback in terms of the professional skills, technical skills, collaboration skills,” Huang says. “This format will also serve as a recruiting platform for employers.” To this end, Madojo’s curriculum has two main topics of emphasis: technical skills and professional development. Students learn technical skills through case challenges based on local Nigerian problems that teach students how to utilize data to solve those problems. These case challenges help students develop “microcredentials,” which allow them to show an in-depth understanding of a particular topic or skill that is relevant to future employment opportunities. In this way, the platform streamlines the recruiting process for employers, who can see these skills, while giving applicants real-world experience. Students also focus on developing professional skills such as how to give elevator pitches, how to write resumes and cover letters, and how to find and apply for jobs. “At the core of what we’re doing is walking the students through how to problem solve,” Okoro says, because this is a large focus of employers in Nigeria. 

Although the Madojo team does not yet have a platform available, they are connecting with students all over the country through Google Forms and email. At the end of last year, Madojo ran a pilot program with 15 Nigerian students, who were enrolled in a 10-week, microcredentialing course that the team designed to gauge their interest in the program and see if the program benefits them. The team sees Madojo as a community and hopes members will utilize its curriculum to become career self-starters. “We’re only successful if [students] are able to take away all the skills, networks, and connections” that they are offered, Huang says. 

In the future, the team hopes to digitize the program, drawing inspiration from Nigerian career portal Jobberman and Kaggle, an online community of data scientists. They want to create a  platform “where students can upskill, verify the skills they have, and upload those skills to their portfolio,” Albano says. This would allow students to have one webpage where they can display their resumes, portfolios, and other products or code they have written. 

The name “Madojo” comes from combining the word for “community” in the three main Nigerian languages, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. To the team, which graduated from the MDevEng program in December, “the most important thing is building a community of learning and a community of opportunities,” Okoro says. As with many promising technologies, Madojo’s users will also put it to use for a more diverse array of purposes than the founders imagined, from addressing climate change to working with youth to even owning a dance company to put on performances for the community. 

“They are really community focused,” Okoro says. “They are looking to give back to their communities with the opportunities and resources to do so.”

Meet Cleve Justis: MDevEng Professor and Best-Selling Author

Cleveland Justis, professor of MDevEng’s “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship,” fights these misconceptions by teaching how business strategy can be used as an instrument of social change. 

Cleveland Justis photo
Cleveland Justis photo

By Alisha Dalvi

When Master of Development Engineering students find out about the core class on social entrepreneurship, some tend to be a little skeptical. Some, having learned to eschew capitalist norms in previous work and academic experiences, now wonder how a class that teaches market-oriented approaches will be beneficial. Cleveland Justis, professor of MDevEng’s “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship,” fights these misconceptions by teaching how business strategy can be used as an instrument of social change. 

Justis started his undergrad at Swarthmore College and then fell in love with UC Berkeley when he spent the summer in Berkeley after his freshman year. The university, the town, and especially the outdoor scenery prompted him to transfer; one year later, he was a Cal student, studying environmental science. Justis found his passion for environmental education working with Cal Adventures promoting outdoor skills and activities. Immediately after graduating, Justis became an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School, leading hiking and kayaking expeditions across Alaska, Chile, and Mexico, while also at the Headlands Institute, another environmental educational nonprofit. While dedicating 10 years each at both organizations, Justis discovered an interest in the strategy side of running nonprofits, an intersection he had not heard much about. “Environmental activists always seem to disagree with business,” said Justis. “But I was dedicated to reconciling that.”

Tackling this goal led him back to school to obtain an MBA from UC Davis Graduate School of Management. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs working in poverty alleviation, Justis knew he did not want to use business school to make companies wealthy, but to create social change. While pursuing his MBA, he began operating under a then-new concept: social enterprise. He identified three crucial facets that remain fundamental to his curriculum to this day: using the tools of nonprofits, government, and business in creative ways to bolster social change. He wanted to understand business as a way to uplift other fields. 

Justis wasn’t alone in his curiosity about social enterprise — other students were hungry for it, too. Upon completing his MBA, the dean of the School of Management encouraged Justis to start the first-ever social enterprise course at the business school. So he did just that, formulating a class from scratch. He pulled in guest speakers, many from the government, with the goal of bridging the business-versus-public sector divide. And he soon realized that he really loved teaching —  even more than his day job at the time, leading the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that supports park conservation throughout the Bay Area.

Despite some hesitation that it was too late and he was too busy to go back to school, Justis returned for an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at UC Davis, working with top-notch faculty and researchers from the business, geography, and community development schools to create unique ways to apply business techniques to create social change.   

While working on his Ph.D., which he finished four years ago, Justis was also teaching social enterprise to undergraduates at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In early 2020, a professor at Haas’ Center for Social Sector Leadership reached out to him and mentioned the start of a new master’s program housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies: Developmental Engineering. The MDevEng needed someone who could bridge the different worlds of social change and business planning. And this was Justis’ forte. 

Justis has taught DevEng 204: Introduction to Social Enterprise since the program’s start two years ago. MDevEng students are required to take the course in their spring semester, learning how to incorporate entrepreneurial approaches to their personal social ventures. This is especially useful to the degree’s required capstone project. Justis has one main goal in his class: help students understand how successful social change requires government, business, and nonprofits to coexist by pulling in strategies across disciplines. Some students tend to be a bit skeptical of capitalist-oriented approaches. “And this is good, it’s a healthy apprehension,” Justis contends. “But I want to help them understand that government hasn’t been universally beneficial either, and non-profits also don’t always act in the people’s best interest.” The ideal system? One which creatively melds all three approaches. 

Courtesy of Cleveland Justis
Courtesy of Cleveland Justis

Justis formats his class with some lecturing in the beginning and a substantial amount of time for students to discuss and learn from each other. “The past two cohorts have been very intelligent and great critical thinkers; it’s really impressive,” says Justis. “And I am continuously amazed by how students use their international knowledge and connections to apply my lessons on a global scale.” Justis also brings in guest speakers throughout the course, many of which are based outside the US and represent marginalized groups across the world. And through learning from these speakers, lectures, and each other, students understand the magnitude that small-scale models, ones they can devise and develop within their own networks, have in forging social impact. For example, Mathews Tisatayane, is working to provide his community in Malawi clean energy, healthy food, and economic independence by using a social enterprise for-profit system. This is exactly what Justis hopes students get out of the class — developing impactful models doable at an individual and community scale. 

Students in this year’s DevEng 204 class had a new pedagogical tool: Justis’ recently released book Don’t Lead Alone, a culmination of his work, combining the tools he learned through research and valuable lessons he’s learned through teaching social entrepreneurship and leadership. Don’t Lead Alone’s goal is to make his past work more readable and accessible to everyone beyond academia, and it was inspired by students he has inadvertently learned from in his previous classes. The book — Justis’ first — encourages readers to “think like a system, act like a network, and lead like a movement,” drawing skills from leaders across — guess where — businesses, nonprofits, and governments. Daniel Student, a fellow UC Davis MBA alumnus and theater director and actor, co-authored the book and provided creative direction to Justis’ academic linear. Three years of on-and-off writing paid off. Since its release in February, it has landed on at least three different Amazon bestseller lists. But, ever the educator, Justis is most interested in how the book lands with his pupils. “I wrote the book for my students,” he says, “so they’re the true test-case.”

 

From Malawi to Berkeley and Back: How M.DevEng Student Mathews Tisatayane Achieved His Dream of Bringing Sustainable Development to His Hometown

Tisatayane had been a teacher, a nurse, and an unsuccessful social entrepreneur. Now, he’s using development engineering to provide his fellow Malawians clean energy and an opportunity to free themselves from economic hardship.

Three of the 11 members of the Yankho women's co-op (left), the backbone of and inspiration for Umodzi, along with Brian Ndongera (third from right), an advisor to Umodzi, Mathews Tisatayane (second from right), founder and president, and Sean Mandell, co-founder and CEO. (Umodzi photo)
Three of the 11 members of the Yankho women’s co-op (left), the backbone of and inspiration for Umodzi, along with Brian Ndongera (third from right), an advisor to Umodzi, Mathews Tisatayane (second from right), founder and president, and Sean Mandell, co-founder and CEO. (Umodzi photo)

Tisatayane had been a teacher, a nurse, and an unsuccessful social entrepreneur. Now, he’s using development engineering to provide his fellow Malawians clean energy and an opportunity to free themselves from economic hardship.

By Sam Goldman

Growing up, Mathews Tisatayane had few boundaries about where he could go and who he could see. His corner of Malawi, in southeast Africa, was multicultural, and he hung out with people from different tribes, who spoke different languages, and who practiced different religions. He didn’t have electricity or running water, and his family took him shopping for clothes once a year if he was lucky. But “growing up,” he said, “I didn’t feel like I was poor at all.”

As the third child and first-born son of his mother’s 12 children, he held a lot of responsibility and worked on his family’s farm growing tobacco — a major component of the Malawian economy. When he was seven, he used the income he earned to self-enroll in a school about five miles away.

Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane (Courtesy photo)
Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane (Courtesy photo)

Tisatayane, now 50 and finishing his final semester of UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering program, says his family still grows tobacco “out of desperation, out of ‘what else can we do?’”

When he finally did get the chance to go to school, he encountered his first Peace Corps volunteer, which made him think the U.S. had something to offer the world. These ideas lodged in the back of his mind.

Tisatayane finished high school in 1994, but the introduction of college-entrance exams that favored elite kids halted his plans for college. It was already a dark time: His great uncle, who owned his family’s farm and had funded everything in his life, had passed away. He recalled trying to compose himself and asking what he could do in this bleak situation.

If there is one thing that defines Tisatayane, it’s resilience: “When I’m put in a situation, no matter how bad or good it is, I’m always trying to say, ‘How can I do better for myself and the people around me?’”

The mantra has guided him through famine, nursing school, full-time nursing, a deep but unsuccessful foray into social entrepreneurship, all the way to the inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program. During his three semesters at Blum Hall, he parlayed new professional and peer connections to launch Umodzi with Sean Mandell, a recent graduate of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. The company is a reincarnation of Tisatayane’s failed attempt at social entrepreneurship, allowing women-led co-ops in Malawi to raise quail in a 100-percent sustainable, self-contained system.

“I’m almost happy I failed,” he said of his first attempt at sustainable development. “If I didn’t fail, I wouldn’t have come to Berkeley.”

From famine to the San Francisco Department of Public Health

After his great uncle died, Tisatayane found his way to a teacher’s training college, spent two years there, and returned to his village to teach kids — all while continuing as a subsistence farmer providing for 17 people as the elder man of the family.

But more hardship was in store. In 2001, a terrible famine hit Malawi. Tisatayane lost half his body weight and, at one point, while still teaching, went three days without food. The problem, he realized, wasn’t that there was not enough food in the country, but that it was not accessible to poorer people — including those who grew it. “That was the famine that changed my life for good,” he recalled two decades later. “It’s one of the things that pushed me to” apply to UC Berkeley — “to try to do something to relieve my people of that.”

Meanwhile, he had gotten involved in a government program where people planted trees for food. There, he met another Peace Corp volunteer. They married. And that was how Tisatayane made it to the country that, in high school, he started to realize had something to offer the world.

“When I came to the United States, I was totally useless,” he said. In Malawi, he had friends, family, a teaching job. “I had everything there. And then all of a sudden, I’m in a completely different situation.” He was lost. It was like the end of high school all over again.

But that spurred the same thought process: What could he do to help himself and those around him? Tisatayane enrolled in the City College of San Francisco not knowing what he wanted to pursue. But it reminded him of his youth, surrounded by folks speaking different languages, practicing different religions, displaying different personalities. It buoyed him.

While at CCSF, Tisatayane volunteered for six months in the unit serving patients with HIV/AIDS, learning about U.S. patient care. Many of them nearing the end of their lives didn’t have family, and he saw how the nurses became the closest relationships they had. “The passion, the love, and the dedication of the nurses who worked in that care unit,” he said, “inspired me to be like, ‘I think I want to be a nurse and do what these people are doing.’”

He studied intensely and improved his grades while at CCSF but did not get into the nursing program there, which used a lottery system. Persevering, Tisatayane later found a different school, and he became one of the very few men or Black people in the University of San Francisco’s undergrad nursing program, from which he graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing in 2011.

With the mission of helping the homeless suffering in the wealthiest country in the world, over the next five years, he worked at the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Medical Respite & Sobering Center, aiding those who were discharged from the hospital and needing housing or social services as well as those passed out on the street and smelling of alcohol. Despite the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift — and the beginning of a new family here — Tisatayane continued to support his family back home in Malawi.

“If you’re not going to do this, you’re going to regret it on your deathbed.”

Though he had spent years helping those in need in San Francisco, his family in Malawi continued to grow and need support. His sisters and their friends had started a cooperative, Yankho co-op in Kauma Village, and he gave them $5,000 to use however they wanted. Six months later, the group of women had started an informal microfinancing program among themselves; every Sunday, they got together to lend money to whoever needed it most that week.

Tisatayane found that many women, along with their children, were raising chickens and other small birds, but they couldn’t scale their efforts. The cause mirrored that of the famine: Bird-feed ingredients grown in the village were bought up by middlemen, who sold them to businessmen in the city to make the feed, and who then sold it back to the farmers. He wrote up a business plan and showed it to contacts of his wife, who secured him $35,000 in funding. He would bring to his community a self-sustaining bird-raising operation.

The key, he learned, was energy: ubiquitous in the U.S., scarce in his hometown. He studied microgrids — small-scale, self-sufficient energy systems — and reached out to friend and fellow Malawian William Kamkwamba, of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind fame, who put him in touch with someone who got him the solar panels and batteries that Tisatayane would assemble into bird incubators and brooders. The equipment was paid for using the funds Tisatayane had raised.

The incubators could replace a hen lying on her eggs for 21 days — not an easy model to scale — in order to hatch as many eggs as possible. The chicks would then stay in the brooders — warm rooms that mimic their mothers’ feathers. After two weeks, the birds would be ready to be sent to farmers.

Solar panels being installed during Tisatayane's first attempt at sustainable development in Malawi. (Umodzi photo)
Solar panels being installed during Tisatayane’s first attempt at sustainable development in Malawi. (Umodzi photo)

If his community could raise their own chickens all on their own, then they would eat well, which meant better health. They could sell the ones they couldn’t eat for income. And building a system run by women and youth would empower them, too. One of “the most profound moments” in the process, he recalled, was being in the U.S. and receiving a video of incubated chicks hatching at his village — “life coming out of an egg, because of the invention that we made.”

The machines worked well for two months. When they started failing at night, he hired independent solar companies to check them out. The panels, it turned out, had come from different manufacturers, as did the wiring. Either they were put together improperly or the batteries were used too quickly and died. The endeavor was paused indefinitely.

Tisatayane said he felt like “a failed social entrepreneur.” He tried out some online courses on social entrepreneurship, but they didn’t help. Then, he discovered UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, run by Prof. Daniel Kammen. He spent a week on YouTube devouring Kammen’s talks. He wanted more. “How can I be part of people like this,” he asked himself, “because I truly, truly believe that I can do more in Malawi.”

In following the lab online, he came across Berkeley’s new Master of Development Engineering program, the first cohort of which was to start in the fall of 2021. “This is it,” he thought. “If you’re not going to do this, you’re going to regret it on your deathbed.” 

Investors and biodigesters 

Sure enough, he was accepted. He’d wake up at 6 a.m., take BART from his home in southern San Francisco to downtown Berkeley, and hike a mile up through campus to California Memorial Stadium for DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” at 8 a.m. He had started his dream program, a chapter in his life he hadn’t even considered not long before.

Sean Mandell (Courtesy photo)
Sean Mandell (Courtesy photo)

That first-semester M.DevEng course turned out to be pivotal. Tisatayane met Sean Mandell, a student at the Haas School of Business who had been a data scientist for four years at a health-tech start-up. Mandell had had a longtime interest in — but limited involvement with — global development and had come to Berkeley to pursue social entrepreneurship. The two chatted during class breaks. 

“We truly liked each other and respected each other’s views on what needs to happen in terms of development,” said Mandell, who graduated in May.

“Without Sean, my business wouldn’t be what it is,” Tisatayane said on a recent afternoon at a cafe on Euclid Avenue, near Blum Hall, home of the M.DevEng program. He described their blueprint: Solar panels heating multiple hatcheries incubating quail eggs, and biodigesters turning quails’ waste into fertilizer for the birds’ food as well as fuel to supplement the solar electricity. Once up and running, the circular system could address a panoply of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including zero hunger, gender equality, affordable and clean energy, responsible consumption and production, and more. The whole enterprise, which they named Umodzi — “togetherness” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s main languages — would be run by the women cooperative with whom Tisatayane had collaborated on his first try. The name reflected the unity with which Tisatayne’s community approached everything, from work to celebrations, as he grew up. 

A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)
A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)

Prof. Layla Kwong of the School of Public Health, his capstone advisor, gave him the idea to use biodigesters — mechanical stomachs that convert organic material, like quail poop, into biogas to heat incubating eggs, cook food, or make fertilizer to grow the quails’ food. Tisatayane read up on the process and discovered a biodigester maker already in Malawi. The country also had an incubator maker. “Talking to people, we found out all the systems were already there,” he said.

Eventually, Tisatayane and Mandell registered Umodzi as a public-benefit corporation in the U.S., with a subsidiary company in Malawi and a lawyer in each country, too. Tisatayane is founder and president; Mandell, co-founder and CEO. They went on to raise over $100,000 from individuals interested in supporting their project and even contributed some of their own savings. They bought a 25-kilowatt solar power system with a 60 kilowatt-hour lithium battery system from a Malawian supplier.

But getting a fully functioning enterprise off the ground required even more investment, and that’s where networking through the M.DevEng program came in handy once again. Prof. Alice Agogino, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, introduced Tisatayane to Stephen Isaacs, former president and CEO of Aduro Biotech and a member of the program’s advisory board, who then introduced him to his own friend Bob Reed, former CFO at Sutter Health. Reed immediately took to the idea. “What can I do for you?” he asked Tisatayane.

“I have an idea to change my community, but I know nothing about the money world,” he had replied. 

Reed enthusiastically obliged and became a friend and mentor to Tisatayane, introducing him to another potential investor. Umodzi’s circle of backers grew.

“Here for the indefinite future”

In the spring, Mandell surprised Tisatayane: He had bought a one-way ticket to Malawi, departing the day after his May graduation. “I’m here for the indefinite future,” Mandell told him. 

Tisatayane himself left for the country in June and stayed for two months, his longest trip to Malawi since moving to the U.S. Gut instinct told him to stay for a second month; it allowed him to be with family when his father passed away.

A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)
Solar batteries and an inverter (Sean Mandell photo)

The batteries (lifespan: 10-plus years) and electrical equipment arrived in modular shipping containers and joined the hatcheries and biodigesters in Kauma Village. Solar panels (lifespan: 30 years) were installed, and a borehole was drilled to provide potable water to the birds. While drilling, they decided to install taps for the local community to access the water for free.

Umodzi’s fundraising efforts have netted just enough money to launch; Tisatayane estimated all the investment will be recouped in about a year of operations. As site manager, the pair hired Bernadetta Ndongera, a young woman from the community with experience working with farmers, raising poultry, and growing crops and with a degree in agriculture from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, in the country’s capital. “We didn’t want to bring in a man when both co-founders are men,” Tisatayane said. The Yankho co-op remains Umodzi’s backbone. In fact, it was the women’s cooperative that aspired to raise quail as a ticket to economic freedom and self-sufficiency in the first place. 

As his final semester in the M.DevEng program wound down, Tisatayane bought a one-way ticket to Malawi to be full-time hands-on. Before departing in mid-January, he’ll wrap up his current job as a health nurse at a San Francisco County jail, which he had been juggling alongside his studies, entrepreneurial activities, and parenthood. He expects to split his time between the two countries he calls home, with plans to come back to California later in 2023. 

With only a couple weeks left in the M.DevEng program, Tisatayane was sent a familiar type of video — the first sign that months of hard work, perseverance, and passion were beginning to bear fruit for his community. Umodzi hatched the first quail chicks from an initial batch of 900 — a mere fifth of the number all its incubators will hold. On his screen, he watched in awe as a few of them broke through their shells. 

“My goal is to relieve Malawi of its tobacco industry and replace it with clean energy, and from there, move on to the rest of Africa or the rest of the world, to the extent that we can,” Tisatayane said. “But I can’t clean up Zambia and other neighboring countries until I clean up Malawi, my backyard.”

Congrats, M.DevEng Class of 2022! Members of Inaugural Cohort, Themselves Pioneers in DevEng, Graduate

After 16 months, three semesters, 44 internships, 26 capstone projects, and countless hours in the classroom and out in the field, the inaugural cohort of UC Berkeley’s M.DevEng program walked across the stage of campus’ Sibley Auditorium in the Bechtel Engineering Center on Saturday to receive the country’s — if not the world’s — first master of development engineering degree. The 44-student Class of 2022 — pioneers of the burgeoning discipline that originated at Berkeley — will leave Blum Hall for careers in social impact, technology, and sustainability or to further their educational careers.

The M.DevEng Class of 2022 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The M.DevEng Class of 2022 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program are the first students — possibly in the world — to receive a graduate degree in the field. (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program are the first students — possibly in the world — to receive a graduate degree in the field. (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

After 16 months, three semesters, 44 internships, 26 capstone projects, and countless hours in the classroom and out in the field, the inaugural cohort of UC Berkeley’s M.DevEng program walked across the stage of campus’ Sibley Auditorium in the Bechtel Engineering Center on Saturday to receive the country’s — if not the world’s — first master of development engineering degree. The 44-student Class of 2022 — pioneers of the burgeoning discipline that originated at Berkeley — will leave Blum Hall for careers in social impact, technology, and sustainability or to further their educational careers.

Students and their families, many of whom flew in from around the world, gathered at dusk for an intimate ceremony and reception to celebrate a group hailing from 15 countries and with backgrounds as diverse as education, electrical engineering, finance, and nursing. During their three semesters, the graduates studied a multidisciplinary curriculum focused on design and management of technology, application of emerging technologies, evidence-based assessment techniques, economic development, social problem solving, cross-cultural collaboration, and community engagement. From their first class, they’ve been devising and implementing technological solutions to complex societal challenges in low-resource settings.

Student speaker Mathews Tisatayane (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Student speaker Mathews Tisatayane (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“Regardless of the path each one of us is taking, we all agree the world would be a better place if we all put our efforts together,” said student speaker Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane, who took the stage to raucous cheers from his peers.

He began by asking the room to take a deep, collective breath. That breath, he pointed out, is an interaction of, and made possible by, all sorts of elements, from air molecules to lung cells, tissues to organs. “Although all these cells are different in some ways, by working altogether they maintain life as we know it,” he reminded us.

If togetherness is so vital to making the world work, why, he asked, is modern society so resistant to working together to solve climate change and poverty? We’ve been taught to work as individuals and to think of our divisions as almost natural, he said. “But it’s not. I came to UC Berkeley to find minds who could help me challenge these divisions. And I’m happy to tell you I found them,” he said, gesturing to his erstwhile classmates in the front rows. “They’re right here. Through different interactions with each other, faculty, and capstone projects, we researched and found our differences are what bring us closer.” 

Tisatayane turned to Nelson Mandela for how the cohort could turn its togetherness into action: “‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity. It is an act of justice,’” he quoted. “‘Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade. And it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. … Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. And you can be that generation.’” 

“Let us be great. Let us be that generation that Nelson Mandela was talking about,” Tisatayane added. “Let our greatness blossom together. Let’s go out in the world to do actions to positively impact the planet and the lives of those living in poverty. In togetherness, we believe.”

From left: Malika Sugathapala, Daniel Huang, Curtis Wong, and Eleanor Chin (Photo by Sam Goldman)
From left: Malika Sugathapala, Daniel Huang, Curtis Wong, and Eleanor Chin (Photo by Sam Goldman)

Tisatayane cited his own capstone project as a product of togetherness. It was a reincarnation of an unsuccessful attempt at sustainable development in Malawi, where he was born and raised. He had teamed up with Sean Mandell, a Haas School of Business student he had met in his first DevEng class, to found Umodzi — “togetherness” in Tisatayane’s native language, Chichewa — which allows women-led co-ops in Malawi to raise quail in a 100-percent sustainable, self-contained system. His classmates’ capstone projects included a business for seamstresses in rural Ghana to sell their high-quality wares, a toilet that recycles the nitrogen from urine to use in fertilizer, advancing an initiative to bring arsenic-safe drinking water to rural cities in California, and a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers.

“What you’ve done with your projects is remarkable,” said DevEng and Energy and Resources Group Prof. Dan Kammen in a recorded message to graduates. “You’ve launched this program with your passion and all the projects you’ve done.”

Commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Maya Carrasquillo, the newest member of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, which offers the M.DevEng, gave the commencement address.

“When I learned that this was the first cohort — the first cohort — for the Master of Development Engineering, I felt myself awestricken,” she said.

“You have become the precedent for what this program can and will become: a program marked by educating and equipping changemakers to develop innovative global solutions. What a powerful vision, and each of you embodies that so much,” Carrasquillo said. “It takes a certain kind of individual to step out into unproven, untested grounds. … You’re the ones who dare to do something different, in pursuit of something greater than yourselves. You are the ones not motivated by titles or prestige but by an inner voice that reminds you there has to be more than the way things have always been.”

Carrasquillo offered reflections shared at a book-tour event she attended for former First Lady Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry: “To treat yourself and others with gladness.” 

“In a world and in a profession where we are constantly striving to do good, it is all too easy to forget to be good,” she said. “And more than just being good — being kind — and even then, it is far too often that we are kind to others and less kind to ourselves. As you all go out to do all the amazing, undoubtedly life-changing things that you have been prepared to do in this world, never forget to greet yourself and others with gladness.” 

Shubham Salunkhe (left) and Sara Almusafri with Prof. Alice Agogino (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Shubham Salunkhe (left) and Sara Almusafri with Prof. Alice Agogino (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Early in the ceremony, the M.DevEng program honored retiring Prof. Alice Agogino for her years of service in developing and guiding Berkeley’s DevEng programs, in which she chairs the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, serves as the Blum Center for Developing Economies’ education director, leads the M.DevEng’s Sustainable Design Innovations concentration, led DevEng seminars, mentored many students, and held innumerable office hours with both enrolled students and prospective ones. Director of DevEng Programs Yael Perez presented Agogino with a scrapbook of photos and messages from the DevEng community, and Kammen highlighted her career of developing opportunities for students, faculty, and others to collaborate across disciplines and focus their STEM work on social impact. “What an honor and pleasure to work with you,” he said.

Bioengineering professor and Blum Center faculty director Dan Fletcher closed out the ceremony by noting how clearly the commencement showcased the tight-knit and supportive community the graduates had formed over their three semesters. Each grad walked across the stage to not just a reading of a self-written, third-person statement detailing their accomplishments, but to the cheers of their fellows. 

Though classes are over, Fletcher said, “the connections among you continue.” He called out how fitting it was to conclude the students’ recognition with the ending of the final student’s statement: “And she loves you all very much.”

DevEng Professors Publish “Introduction to Development Engineering,” the Field’s First Textbook

So in true development engineering fashion, Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon, part of the professional faculty at Haas School of Business, teamed up to publish Introduction to Development Engineering: A Frame with Applications from the Field — the discipline’s first textbook. It was published by Springer as an open access title on Sept. 9.

Cover by Springer

UC Berkeley helped pioneer the field of development engineering more than a decade ago. Yet for many years, the professors teaching Berkeley’s foundational class, DevEng C200 (“Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies”), didn’t have a textbook for their students. The discipline — which integrates engineering with economics, business, natural resource management, and the social sciences — focuses on technological interventions that can address the needs of low-income communities, at scale.

When the field of development engineering was first getting started, “we had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find case studies for the students to understand and debate,” explained Prof. Ashok Gadgil, Rudd Family Foundation Distinguished Chair of Safe Water & Sanitation and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

So in true development engineering fashion, Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon, part of the professional faculty at Haas School of Business, teamed up to publish Introduction to Development Engineering: A Framework with Applications from the Field — the discipline’s first textbook. It was published by Springer as an open access title on Sept. 9.

“We want to make this a topic of academic research because, whether it’s business or engineering or economics, everybody is too fractured intellectually and looks up their own stovepipe and doesn’t solve the problem,” Gadgil said. “They just go deeper and deeper and get narrower and narrower in viewpoint.” 

“The big picture question,” he continued, “is how are we going to meet the U.N. sustainable development goals and still not blow our planet’s carbon budget?”

Ashok Gadgil
Temina Madon

The textbook is available online at no cost and in its first few weeks was downloaded from publisher Springer’s website more than 30,000 times. The Development Impact Lab, a USAID-backed initiative co-led by the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) and the Blum Center for Developing Economies, supported the expenses of creating the book, which included honoraria for contributing authors and other costs associated with open-access publishing.

Introduction to Development Engineering isn’t Berkeley’s only effort to formalize the field of DevEng. Gadgil, Madon, and Paul Gertler, an economics professor at Haas and the School of Public Health, launched Development Engineering, an open access research journal, in 2015. 

“We are going to launch this journal and it’s going to be open access,” Gadgil recalled telling the chairman of Elsevier — the world’s largest, and one of the most expensive, research-journal publishers — at a reception for a prize Gadgil had won. “Because otherwise the journal isn’t going to be useful for people and for the institutions in the countries where poverty is widespread.” To Gadgil’s surprise, the company wanted to get into open access publishing and was willing to take a loss for the first five years of the journal to ensure that DevEng could establish itself as a discipline.

That open access belief carried over to the book. 

After Springer expressed interest, Gadgil and Madon talked to EECS Professor Emeritus Eric Brewer, Haas’ Prof. Catherine Wolfram, economics Prof. Edward Miguel, and CEGA, among others, and knuckled down on the book “well before COVID” — as early as the beginning of 2019, Gadgil reckons. Some three and a half years later, anyone can download a free copy or purchase a hard copy from Springer’s website.

Whether or not other colleges’ efforts in this area use the term “development engineering,” there is no longer a need to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” for teaching materials.

Clocking in at 650 pages, the textbook features 19 DevEng projects that graduate students can use as case studies, ranging from fintech for rural markets in Sub-Saharan Africa to stopping arsenic poisoning in India to protecting electoral integrity in emerging democracies. The DevEng practitioners who authored a set of invited chapters have included open-ended discussion questions for students to consider the pros and cons of a project and debate other decisions that could have been made. None of the questions have simple answers, Gadgil said: “It’s still an evolving field.”

Yet rather than just presenting “a bunch of projects put together and stapled into a book,” Gadgil, Madon, and co-editors led the development of four framework chapters at the beginning to provide the intellectual history, ethical challenges, and philosophical underpinnings of development engineering. This is important, Gadgil noted, given the history of white-collar and often-white researchers and engineers going into poorer areas without the context or cultural fluency to ask the right questions, include the right people, or solve the right problems. An instructor can start with those four framework chapters and then select any subsequent projects from which they would like to teach. 

“Top-tier universities across the U.S. and across the world have courses that recognize that engineering is not just about solving existing problems of big industry,” Gadgil said. “They recognize that it must also be about solving pressing problems of society.”

Diverse in Discipline and Distance, United in Ambition: Meet the New M.DevEng Cohort!

Integrating her background with her education, Andono aims to center the environment when creating architecture, from its design process, construction, and operation, to create lasting, sustainable change.

The students of the cohort come from various backgrounds and disciplines, yet find commonality in wanting to use their education to innovate and create change in low-resource areas across the world. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

By Alisha Dalvi

When the pandemic forced Kristi Andono to move back home to Jakarta from Los Angeles during her undergraduate education, she was able to turn adversity into opportunity and take on a brand new role — the head of the Corporate Social Responsibility team for the Indonesian Energy Corporation. As she balanced taking classes online to fulfill her real estate and architecture degree, she was simultaneously designing shelters for victims of gender-based violence in remote villages, renovations for disintegrating orphanages, and infrastructure for water accessibility. “Growing up in Indonesia has exposed me to degrading environmental conditions and its constant battle with economic growth, where one has to be sacrificed for the other,” Andono said. Integrating her background with her education, Andono aims to center the environment when creating architecture, from its design process, construction, and operation, to create lasting, sustainable change.

From left to right, Esther Mburu, Diane Kabanyana, Martin Ssemulugo, Anjali Ravunniarath, and Charity Fang stand together in an ice breaker activity during orientation where they learn the numerous countries their peers are from. (Photo by Chetan Chowdhry)

Looking to equip herself with new skills to become a holistic changemaker, Andono applied and was accepted to UC Berkeley’s Master of Developmental Engineering program, housed at the Blum Center. This three-semester professional degree is a new program that attracts students across various fields, from business to engineering to economics, to develop technological advancements that address the needs of low-resource communities across the world.

Andono and 32 other students in the new cohort — the program’s second ever — attended the masked-up M.DevEng orientation on August 23. Through an interactive presentation, students gained insight into UC Berkeley as well as the program specifically. Afterward, students had the chance to mingle and meet for the first time, get to know M.DevEng staff, and go on a tour of Blum Hall — their new home for the next 15 months. This cohort is only the second in history, making them pioneers in the discipline and a fundamental group to shape the future of the program and the field.

Blum Center Faculty Director Dan Fletcher welcomes the new cohort during orientation in a speech that highlights UC Berkeley as a place of initiative, support, and creativity. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

“The M.DevEng program is the shining star of educational activities at the Blum Center,” said Dan Fletcher, the center’s faculty director. “It is about finding creative people with initiative, who support each other, bringing them together, and tackling real problems.” Students of the new cohort will take three semesters of development engineering classes as well as elective classes focused on their concentration area, along with one summer internship in between. But the development engineering classes don’t follow one discipline; rather they center around “research and practice that combines the principle of engineering with economics, entrepreneurship, design, business, and policy,” said Yael Perez, the director of Development Engineering programs.

Director of DevEng programs Yael Perez shows the new cohort the new room dedicated to the M.DevEng program, located at the Blum Center. Students can look forward to a space to collaborate and use the new coffee machine! (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

That multidisciplinary element is essential to the program. During the orientation presentation, students were asked one word to describe developmental engineering. “Interdisciplinary” was the most common, appearing the largest on the computer-generated word cloud. The integrative approach of the program is especially important for Ash Seth, a product designer from Dubai who pursued a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree at Stanford University and who values the intersection of technology and social impact. As a designer herself, she has prototyped and tested affordable greenhouses for hundreds of smallholder farmers in India. But, as a strategist for an urban design nonprofit, Seth also understands the significance of dialogue across numerous disciplines, from scientists to policy specialists.

Diane Kabanyana, a business and economics major from Rwanda, is not only excited to learn from her peers through their previous academic endeavors, but from the various countries and backgrounds they come from as well. “I’ve only been here a week, but Berkeley is so diverse!” Kabanyana said. “I live at International House and it seems like every country is represented.”

The new M.DevEng cohort itself is composed of students from over 10 different countries. But being an international student is certainly not a prerequisite. Rachel Dersch is an energy engineer from Michigan. While Dersch has developed solar power projects in Peru and Tanzania, both still up and running today, she also found the need for energy consumption reduction in her own community. By spearheading pilot programs and technology demonstrations, Dersch has been able to work to reduce energy waste in Michigan. When looking to further her education in humanitarian engineering, Dersch found that development engineering is not just a new curriculum, but a new concept in colleges all together. The M.DevEng stuck out as one of the few existing programs that was truly targeted at creating impact in low-income communities. And it didn’t hurt that it’s offered at the top public university in the nation.

On a bright and pleasant day, the new cohort is taken on a tour of the Blum Center during orientation. The new Berkeley residents continuously mention the beautiful weather the Bay seems to have! (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

Yet for all the diversity in the cohort’s educational and cultural backgrounds, one statement seemed to unite them all: “The food in Berkeley is so good!”

With students already raving about Boichik Bagels, just a few blocks away from campus, and local coffee shops, the new cohort seems to know where to fuel up before tackling projects which will make a meaningful and measurable impact on low-resource communities across the world.

Interdisciplinary Team of Students Helps Marine Corps Battalion Optimize Medical Training

The 4th Medical Battalion, a unit of the U.S. Marine Corps made up of Marines and U.S. Navy personnel, wanted to up the training and preparation of medical and surgical teams that support Marines in the field. Marines’ health and safety are quite literally on the line.

group with marines
Vytals members Sudeshna Naik (front row, left) and Pranav Vanjani (front row, right) visit the Marine Corps training field in Miramar East, San Diego and pose with corpsmen and doctors of 4th Medical Battalion. (Vytals photo)

The 4th Medical Battalion, a unit of the U.S. Marine Corps made up of Marines and U.S. Navy personnel, wanted to up the training and preparation of medical and surgical teams that support Marines in the field. Specifically, it wanted to know how it could “more effectively resource, organize, and provide medical training that realistically reflect the austere environments and patient conditions, while optimizing for the availability of critical training equipment.” Marines’ health and safety are quite literally on the line.

Thanks to the National Security Innovation Network and a Development Engineering class at Berkeley, the battalion found a potential answer: Vytals.

The student team in last spring semester’s DevEng 290: Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience (IDR3) — Abhi Ghavalkar (Master of Design), Michelle Williams (Interdisciplinary Studies), Pranav Vanjani (Master of Engineering – Product Design), Sudeshna Naik (Master of Development Engineering), and Vishal Ramesh (Master of Engineering – Product Design) — developed a near-field communications patient-management tool for training medical teams in the field and tracking patients’ vitals in real-time without an internet connection.

The team, which named their final prototype Vytals, was paired with the U.S. Marine Corps’ 4th Medical Battalion early in the class.

diagram
A feature map of Vytals’ near-field communications prototype. (Vytals image)

“This was a great learning experience,” Naik said, “and I learned how to maximize my critical thinking abilities, managerial skills, conduct research, and develop prototypes.” She said she valued the “opportunity to visit the training site and conduct in-person interviews with the 4th Medical Battalion’s surgeons and corpsmen.”

IDR3 started out as just IDR: “Innovation in Disaster Response.” It was the brainchild of Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas School of Business and a researcher in mechanical engineering, and Rachel Dzombak, a former lecturer and researcher at Berkeley and now a full-time researcher and adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University who played a key role in developing DevEng curriculum. They wanted to explore the skill sets needed to solve messy complex problems, including in humanitarian assistance and disaster response: framing and solving those complex problems, experimenting with emerging technology, taking a systems mindset and approach to solving problems, and working in interdisciplinary teams. Key is taking a human-centered approach, understanding the real people who are experiencing the problem and who have a stake in it, and thinking through the role technology can play in a solution that fits the problem, and not vice-versa.

IDR became IDR3, and students were connected to national-security agencies by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a program office under the U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering that connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures to solve national-security problems. Though it’s a DevEng course, students come from a wide array of disciplines. The class is gender-balanced and includes undergrads. Vytals was one of five teams in the 2022 iteration.

“The course intends to draw on the domain expertise of project sponsors, the critical thinking and innovation skills of students, and the frameworks that we as instructors provide,” Rao said. “Of these, Berkeley students shine the most: Working with sponsors presents students with a set of challenges unique from other courses, and I’ll be the first to say that we instructors are constantly learning and are far from perfect.

“Berkeley students drive the story in this class,” he added. “They are so passionate about making tangible differences in the world that they negotiate project and class challenges with alacrity and grace, something that’s true for the range of talent that elects to join the class, whether from engineering, architecture, public policy, or another discipline entirely. The Vytals team absolutely embodies that.”

The team also benefited from a travel award provided by NSIN partner Common Mission Project, a nonprofit platform for creating mission-driven entrepreneurs who can tackle pressing problems in everything from natural disasters to national security. CMP and IDR3 shared a philosophy of what CMP director of strategic partnerships, Tyrome Smith, called “beneficiary discovery.”

“Unless and until you really get to know your customers, you’re really just guessing,” Smith said of innovators seeking to help a specific community. “Sometimes you actually have to see them in their natural environment. You can’t talk to Marines who are trying to develop a sense of triage in the medical environment, for example, and ask, ‘How do you do triage in your medical environment?’ Nope. You’ve got to go visit.”

For CMP, fundees didn’t need to have working prototypes or business plans in place, but that “they’re going there with purpose” — to see, in this case, what the 4th Medical Battalion did, in order for Vytals to evaluate and revise their own hypothesis to best address the battalion’s problems.

So during the spring, part of the Vytals team visited the battalion at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar East in San Diego to check out fast-paced field exercises in an intensive, desert-like environment. They found that suboptimal organization and lack of space meant lost time when simulating medical scenarios, that Battalion members had difficulty identifying needed supplies during these simulated time crunches, and that they had a hard time tracking patient information and vitals.

“Doctors in the field are required to sift through [authorized medical allowance list] boxes for four to six hours every time in order to organize the medical supplies for easy access,” Cdr. Chrystine Lee explained to the team. Capt. Alan Flanigan told them: “We literally write a patient’s vitals on a sticky note and stick it on the patient’s forehead to keep track of their medical status.”

“This was our first foray into working with an educational institution to develop the ideas behind a military solution,” LtCol Sarah Pezzat, the battalion inspector-instructor, said. “Each student attacked the problem from their own unique perspective and honestly thought of potential solutions and took this project in new directions that I’m not sure we would have done on our own.”

Visiting the Marine Corps installation, LtCol Pezzat added, “helped give them a much more nuanced and detailed understanding of our operational and training challenges.”

From those in-the-field observations and numerous interviews with battalion members, the team reframed the problem to focus on providing a “realistic representation of field scenarios while optimizing preparation, organization, and utilization of medical equipment,” and got to work on three prototypes. The third was the battalion’s preferred solution: offline-capable patient tracking. Near-field communications (NFC) tags on patients’ skin monitor their vitals and relay them to caregivers’ devices without the need for internet. Caregivers can monitor their patients’ statuses in real time. A digital interface for trainers allows them to simulate realistic medical scenarios with trainees, who can respond in the system with how they should address the “patient.”

The team’s greatest challenge, Naik said, was “trying to nail down one problem statement that is both within the project’s scope and also meets the needs of all stakeholders.” 

“The most rewarding aspect,” she noted, “is to see how this project will make a real difference to the training process and prepare the 4th Medical Battalion for deployment.”

Though the class is over, Vytals’ run isn’t. Naik has adopted it as her M.DevEng capstone project, and the 4th Medical Battalion is keen on seeing it reach the testing phase and then on to production.

“Developing two of the ideas the Berkeley team came up with would not just benefit the 4th Medical Battalion,” LtCol Pezzat said, “but likely the military medical community as a whole.”

Berkeley Alumnae Tackle Language Gaps in Wildfire Emergency Communication

In the Fall of 2019, Abby Yue Gao’s first semester in UC Berkeley’s Master of Architecture program, her classes had to repeatedly pause due to another severe California wildfire season. Berkeley was spared the flames, but still suffered power shut offs and dreadful air quality thanks to that year’s worst blaze, Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes; hundreds of thousands faced blackouts. A quarter of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home — a major hurdle during disasters, when critical information from first responders goes out primarily in English.

The WEmap team — Abby Yue Gao, Virginia Wong, and Yuquan Zhou — meet with Berkeley advisors Vivek Rao, Sukh Singh, and Thomas Azwell. (Abby Yue Gao image)

In the Fall of 2019, Abby Yue Gao’s first semester in UC Berkeley’s Master of Architecture program, her classes had to repeatedly pause due to another severe California wildfire season. Berkeley was spared the flames, but still suffered power shut offs and dreadful air quality thanks to that year’s worst blaze, Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes; hundreds of thousands faced blackouts. A quarter of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home — a major hurdle during disasters, when critical information from first responders goes out primarily in English.

The following spring, Gao enrolled in a Development Engineering course, “Innovation in Disaster Response,” taught by Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas School of Business and a researcher in mechanical engineering, and Rachel Dzombak, a former lecturer and researcher at Berkeley and now a full-time researcher and adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. Gao was interested in designing a digital product to solve a real-world problem, and the class pushed students to think about the best way to use technology in a disaster situation. 

After research, stakeholder interviews, prototyping, and more, Gao and her teammates, including then–Master of Landscape Architecture student Virginia Wong, created EvacMap, a prototype app for getting out up-to-date evacuation information during wildfires. A little over a year later, EvacMap became WEmap, a research project examining language-based needs in the dissemination of wildfire emergency information. It’s informing the way some of Marin County’s residents with limited English proficiency receive emergency information and resources.

“Sometimes when they receive the alerts or search for information about an emergency,” Gao said, “they might face different problems than native-English speakers.”

“They had very strong user insights,” said Urvashi Agrawal, head of experience for Genasys, the parent company of Zonehaven, a platform that facilitates communication between first responders and communities during emergencies. It’s also the platform on which WEmap prototyped its ideas. Agrawal said Zonehaven is now looking at how the WEmap team’s recommendations and other ideas spawned by them can be incorporated into the platform.

Developing ‘social–technical fluency’

“Innovation in Disaster Response” grew out of Dzombak and Rao’s interest in the skill sets needed to solve messy complex problems, including in humanitarian assistance and disaster response: framing and solving those complex problems, experimenting with emerging technology, taking a systems mindset and approach to solving problems, and working in interdisciplinary teams. It was a Development Engineering class, and only half the students came from engineering and computer science. The class was gender-balanced and welcomed undergrads.

A key aspect of the class — and of all DevEng curriculum, said Dzombak —  is “giving students agency so they feel like they can step into these hard problem spaces and make a difference.” That means taking a community-centered approach and understanding who’s already living and working in a community or problem space. 

“How do I find leverage points?” asked Dzombak. “How do I start to drive change at those leverage points in a way that is culturally appropriate, that aligns with the humans who are embedded in the system, that acknowledges the power dynamics of the system? And also, what role can technology play to change circumstances?” 

One can’t just be a hard-core technologist, but have what she and Rao call social–technical fluency. Students went deep in unpacking disaster-related problems in order to build the right solution — not build a solution in hopes of finding the right problem.

“Innovation in Disaster Response” has since grown into “Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery and Resilience” (IDR3), thanks to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a program office under the U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering that connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. Now, student groups team up with Department of Defense partners involved in, well, DR3. 

“Not only are you giving students a real-world problem for which they can make a tangible difference, but you’re also showing real-world entities and government entities that they can come to an academic institution like Berkeley and find plausible solutions to issues they’re facing,” said Kaitie Penry, NSIN’s program director at Berkeley, which is housed at the Blum Center. 

Gao and Wong “were really passionate but not sure of their place in an engineering class,” recalled Dzombak, who was a key developer of UC Berkeley’s Development Engineering curriculum and who still teaches virtually at Haas’ Executive MBA program. “But they quickly realized that their willingness to engage was way more important than whatever background they had.” 

The class had hardly ended and they were already looking for how to take their project forward, Dzombak said. “They cared so much about the outcomes. They cared so much about the work they had put into it.” 

Going to the next level

Last year, Gao and Wong brought in another 2021 Cal graduate, Yuquan Zhou, who did her master’s in city planning and whose concentration in environmental planning and healthy cities made her a perfect fit. They were also introduced to Sukh Singh, a researcher at Berkeley’s SCET and co-founder of Fire Foundry, and Thomas Azwell, a Berkeley environmental scientist who runs the Disaster Lab, which is currently focused on wildfire technology. Singh and Azwell had roots in the Marin fire scene and put the trio in touch with fire personnel and Marin County officials. 

Wong, meanwhile, discovered a design challenge put out by San Jose social enterprise Wonder Labs: “Reimagining 2025: Living with Fire,” which sought to “enable student-led teams to closely engage with communities in processes of reimagining inclusive, just, and sustainable pathways to living with fire.” Azwell and Singh assisted in their entry proposal, and Rao served as faculty advisor. “One of the reasons I believe in project-based learning is the potential for real-world impact,” Rao said. “I was thrilled that Abby and the team sought out the Wonder Labs competition, and we were excited to leverage the Blum Center’s innovation ecosystem to support them.” 

WEmap didn’t win, “but we really appreciated their idea, in particular their community-partnership approach with the Fire Safe program in Marin County,” said Wonder Labs co-founder Shefali Juneja Lakhina. Wonder Labs wanted to see WEmap come to life and find immediate traction in industry. As advisor to Zonehaven, Lakhina knew the company was expanding into Marin County, so she worked with Zonehaven to create a summer project for Gao, Wong, and Zhou. Wonder Labs eventually expanded its 2021 Design Challenge cohort to provide funding support and mentorship to the WEmap project team. 

“The project just made so much sense to bring Zonehaven in and not create yet another application. It was a very natural fit,” said CEO Charlie Crocker. “We’re always looking for how to innovate in this space and we found that with this project.”

Bridging the language gap

Using census and Wildland Urban Interface data, Gao, Wong, and Zhou found that households with limited English were more concentrated in Marin County’s more fire-prone areas. To hear directly from some of these residents, they homed in on Spanish-speaking San Rafael residents with limited English proficiency and — with the help of Marimar Ochoa, Marin County’s public information specialist, and Sofia Martinez, the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion analyst — they talked to folks at a Spanish-speaking community center, handed out surveys in Spanish, and sent out surveys on Reddit and Facebook groups. The team wanted to understand how these residents received emergency information, obstacles to receiving it, and how they feel and what they do once they have it. 

One of WEmap’s community partners, Marin County public information specialist Marimar Ochoa, helped with outreach to Spanish-speaking residents of San Rafael. (Abby Yue Gao photo)

“The biggest takeaway is that English proficiency is highly correlated with how people react and respond to emergency alerts,” they wrote. Simply translating an alert into another language isn’t always enough to deliver the vital information or prompt the desired action. 

Out of these realizations came recommendations for Zonehaven to incorporate into their platform: understanding residents’ language preferences within the evacuation zones that Zonehaven divides communities into, and making emergency information available in those zones’ preferred languages. They also recommended including actionable resources in emergency alerts, providing a form for residents to sign up for non-emergency assistance in their preferred language, and providing opportunities for community volunteers to translate pressing information and become key nodes between emergency personnel and residents who are on the information-pipeline fringes. 

One of the most interesting findings of the WEmap survey, Azwell said, was “most people rely on a friend or family member for critical information — who probably relies on another friend or family member, who relies on another one.” Working with the most connected individuals in communities, Singh pointed out, is why Marin County’s eligible Latinx residents are closing in on a 100-percent vaccination rate. Putting translation into community members’ hands adds nuance and cultural fluency that might be lost in a Google Translate version. 

Abby Yue Gao presented WEmap’s findings and recommendations last August to Zonehaven, a platform that facilitates communication between first responders and communities during emergencies. Gao and her partners collaborated with the company on their project. (Abby Yue Gao image)

“I think the project has been a good example of true convergence research that applied disciplinary expertise to real-world problems by enabling an industry partner, Zonehaven, to improve their offerings and bringing in community experiences, perspectives, and insights,” Lakhina said. “And I think the timing of the project and the partnerships that it’s built on are truly a lasting contribution, both in terms of developing industry best practices as well as developing community capacities to respond to more just and inclusive evacuation planning.”

Rao celebrated the team’s journey, moving from the class in Spring 2020 to presenting their final work in front of Marin County civic leaders in August 2021. “Here is a team that took a very early stage concept from our course, used research data they collected to reframe the opportunity multiple times, and partnered with a dynamic startup to take their project to the next level and address an overlooked community need. They used the tools of design to execute at a high level and bring in key government stakeholders. This is the work we love to do at the Blum Center, and I’m so thrilled for what the team has accomplished.”

‘Creating a conversation’ 

WEmap and its partnerships and collaborations, Lakhina added, have established a robust methodology and foundation for developing these kinds of insights, which can be used to tackle other gaps in community-driven and inclusive disaster response, such as for those with disabilities and in places with poor internet.

“This is not something that we want to encourage students or research teams to sit in their labs and develop, but to get out there, work with industry partners, and co-develop with communities,” Lakhina said. “I think that is the single largest learning from this project.”

“This project really helps create a conversation within the disaster-response area that equity and cultural consideration are also worth focusing on, rather than just understanding the severity of fire and where the fire personnel are,” said Wong. “For us, it’s a new way of thinking about a problem, and I think we achieve it: trying to create a conversation in this industry.”

Kris Kohler Joins Dev Eng, GPP Programs

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes.

Courtesy of Kris Kohler

By Sam Goldman

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes. Kohler holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology from UC San Diego and a B.A. in Black studies and political science from UC Santa Barbara. 

Kohler’s research and teaching has centered on transnational activism and social movements, international development (or “underdevelopment,” as he notes), and global sociology. He has lived and worked in two dozen countries, most notably in Zambia, and has served in the Peace Corps, worked as a rural health volunteer, and is a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellow. Kohler also has over 80 courses under his belt, including lectureships at San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara, Montgomery College, UC Merced, Stanislaus State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University. 

“UC Berkeley is probably the finest public university in America, if not the world,” he says. “I am a product of California, and the UC system, and the opportunity to teach at UC Berkeley is an honor.”

GPP 115 is a core course of the undergraduate Global Poverty and Practice Minor and focuses on 20th-century development and 21st-century poverty alleviation, and Kohler brings a wealth of first-hand, on-the-ground experience.

“I consider myself a ‘citizen of the world,’ and the challenges of social inequality, poverty, power, and oppression have been concerns of mine for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I majored in ethnic studies, I studied abroad, I participated in the Peace Corps and various social movements. I have studied transnational social movements and international development for a very long time as well. The Global Poverty and Practice course is a wonderful fit for me, providing the opportunity to highlight the role of power and movements in questions of poverty and development.”

“We are excited to have Kris join the teaching team of the GPP Minor,” says Chetan Chowdhry, the Blum Center’s director of student programs and GPP’s lead advisor. “GPP 115 isn’t an easy course to teach, but students in the course have already expressed how much they are learning from it just a few weeks into the semester.”

Kohler teaching DevEng 202: Critical Systems of Development

DevEng 202 is one of two required courses for first-semester Master of Development Engineering students, the inaugural cohort of which started classes last month. M.DevEng students learn a variety of methodological frameworks, the skills needed to participate in the sustainable-development field, and the history and ethics of global development. “I am a ‘pessimistic optimist,’ Kohler says. “I know that ‘another world is possible,’ but strategies for positive social change must be grounded in sophisticated understanding of the challenges which face us.”

“It’s been exciting to sit in the class and see how engaged the students are with the material. It is often hard to stop the conversation for the sake of moving to the next reading and topic,” says M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez. “The power of the class was particularly evident when one of the students asked to turn off the recording for a question that he didn’t want to have on any record due to its political sensitivity in the country he is from.”

No one or two perspectives or disciplines are enough to capture the realities of poverty and development. Kohler grounds his teaching in a “globalized, transnational, and international world of experience and scholarship” and “emphasizes cross-national and cross-cultural comparison of sociological concepts,” and pulls from a diverse array of media to accommodate students’ various learning styles and to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Importantly, his courses’ concepts and research are not merely theoretical. “I take great pains to outline the relevance of social and political theory to the lives of real, flesh-and-blood people,” Kohler says.

“We are thrilled to have Kris aboard to teach such pivotal courses in the M.DevEng and GPP programs,” said Prof. Alice Agogino, education director of the Blum Center. “He not only brings a deep and first-hand familiarity with his subjects but also years of experience and passion for teaching the next generation of effective changemakers.” 

Every class, Kohler notes, is an opportunity to debunk myths and hegemonic ideas. “Students in my courses are constantly challenged to interrogate dogmatic understandings of globalization, economics, democracy, freedom, justice, crime, race, gender, culture, and nation,” he says.

Meet the Inaugural M.DevEng Cohort

Students from around the U.S. and the world — coming from the fields of finance, electrical engineering, nursing, and beyond — make up the inaugural cohort of the three-semester professional master’s program in development engineering, a transdisciplinary field founded at UC Berkeley that creates technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings.

Students of the inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program came from around the U.S. and the world and bring experience in everything from nursing to electrical engineering to finance. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

By Sam Goldman

Barbara Mensah had studied education, founded her own organization to empower rural girls, and worked at a university in Ghana. But wanting to take the next step in her education and career, she had applied and been accepted to UC Berkeley’s first cohort of the brand-new Master of Development Engineering (M.DevEng) program, housed at the Blum Center. It would be a 7,700-mile trip.  

The program had nominated Mensah for a Mastercard Foundation scholarship. When she accepted it, she and other UC Berkeley recipients of the scholarship received an informational email with each other’s names and emails visible. One name stood out. “Is this the Patricia Quaye I know?” she asked herself.

Mensah sent Quaye a WhatsApp message, asking if she was the Patricia Quaye she knew from university in Ghana — the one who had received the same scholarship as Mensah in undergrad. She was. Both, it turned out, chose the Sustainable Design Innovations track of the five M.DevEng tracks available, and both, like many of their peers from abroad, are part of UC Berkeley’s I-House community. Both had even been working in education in Ghana, and now, on another continent, they’re neighbors.

Barbara Mensah (left) and Patricia Quaye attended the same university together in Ghana but didn’t know the other had applied to the M.DevEng program. Both chose the Sustainable Design Innovations track. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

Mensah, Quaye, and 44 other students from around the U.S. and the world — coming from the fields of finance, electrical engineering, nursing, and beyond — make up the inaugural cohort of the three-semester professional master’s program in development engineering, a transdisciplinary field founded at UC Berkeley that creates technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. 

As the Berkeley campus transitions to a mostly in-person fall semester, most students were able to attend a masked-up, open-windows welcome orientation on August 23. “It’s been a long journey for you to get here,” said Shankar Sastry, Blum Center faculty director, professor of computer science, and leader of the M.DevEng AI/Data Analytics track. “It’s particularly exciting to be here in person after an extraordinarily challenging year.” 

“The idea of development engineering is to combine the social sciences with the hard sciences, technology and engineering, and policy,” said Alice Agogino, Blum’s education director, professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the Sustainable Design Innovations track. “We want to tackle problems that require system-level solutions — systems solutions that require multiple disciplines.”

Mathews Tisatayane (left) and Greg Berger get to know each other on a tour of campus after the welcome orientation. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

The new cohort is diverse not only in geographic origin, but also in training and age. Shubham Salunkhe arrived straight out of undergrad at the University of Illinois, Chicago. After interning at UIC’s Energy Resources Center, he decided he needed to gain more knowledge before diving into industry. Malawi native Mathews Tisatayane spent the past decade working as a nurse in San Francisco, while masterminding community-oriented avenues for building wealth and stability on a local level in Malawi.

Tisatayane had devised solar-powered egg-incubators and brooders to support a chicken-raising operation in his hometown. If his community raised their own birds, they would eat well, which meant better health, self-reliance, and opportunity. Faulty machinery derailed the project, but motivated him to learn more. He discovered Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL), run by Professor Daniel Kammen, a Blum Center faculty member. His search led him to the new M.DevEng program, which he decided could provide the skills and networking bridge he needed to make a lasting impact in Malawi and, eventually, beyond.

Abigail Chin introduces herself during a welcome-orientation icebreaker. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

“I’m a little bit emotional, a little bit in disbelief,” Tisatayane said of starting graduate school at age 48. His younger peers, he said, were “working forward” on building their skills, “while I’m working backward” on filling them in. 

Despite the momentousness of arriving at the top university in the U.S., however, the most common surprise among students didn’t have to do with rigorous academics, eye-popping Bay Area rents, or “Berserkeley” culture.

“California is so hot,” Quaye recalled hearing as she prepared to move from the hot climes of Ghana. “But it’s cold!” she added, sitting outside Blum Hall after orientation. 

(From left) Raghav Mittal, Curtis Wong, and Barry McLaughlin catch up during orientation. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

Raghav Mittal, who arrived two days prior from the outskirts of Delhi, India — another legitimately hot area — had the same expectations: the sunny California of the media and postcards. 

Nope. 

“That’s why I’m always wearing a jacket,” he said on a campus tour following orientation. 

But it will be in this fickle climate that Mittal, Quaye, and their peers will begin building projects that will make a tangible impact on the well being of those in low-resource areas.

“Consider yourselves the leaders of this field,” M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez told the inaugural group at their orientation’s opening remarks — “a field in the making.”

Ph.D. Student Paige Balcom Turns Awards into Innovation and Social Change in Uganda

Paige Balcom was in Uganda when COVID hit. The country quickly instituted a strict lockdown—all borders and airports closed, transport stopped, a strict curfew and other restrictions were enforced by the military, misinformation spread, and many people couldn’t get food. In the fall, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student’s classes went remote, and she dealt with the 10-hour time difference.

Balcom and fellow Takataka Plastics employees hold tiles they produced out of PET waste

Paige Balcom was in Uganda when COVID hit. The country quickly instituted a strict lockdown—all borders and airports closed, transport stopped, a strict curfew and other restrictions were enforced by the military, misinformation spread, and many people couldn’t get food. In the fall, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student’s classes went remote, and she dealt with the 10-hour time difference. 

Ugandan hospitals were facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, and Balcom, a mechanical engineer and InFEWS fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and her team decided to make PPE for them.

In January 2020, Balcom and Peter Okwoko, a Ugandan environmental and community activist and lecturer at Gulu University, founded Takataka Plastics, which recycles plastic waste into usable household goods. They began churning out face shields, over 18,000 of which have now been distributed to frontline workers across Uganda. Though “Uganda pulled through OK,” she says, “the last year has been crazy.”

UC Berkeley mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Paige Balcom in Uganda

Balcom has just finished the fourth year of her M.E. Ph.D., where she’s majoring in heat transfer and minoring in development engineering and design. Earlier this spring, she won the $15,000 “Use It!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Takataka Plastics’ system for recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste, a common plastic used in everyday goods like water bottles. “PET waste is a significant problem across the developing world because many countries like Uganda lack the infrastructure and technology to recycle this plastic, and it is often infeasible to ship it elsewhere for recycling,” the Lemelson-MIT Program wrote. Balcom plans to turn her prize money into grants for local innovators in the East African country.

PET’s brittleness and semicrystalline nature make it difficult to recycle, but Balcom’s invention changes the chemical structure of PET enough to make it salvageable using a manually powered and locally made system. 

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is far from her first accolade. Balcom was the 2016 University of New Hampshire Woman of the Year, and from 2016 to 2017, she spent 10 months in Uganda as a Fulbright Scholar studying aquaponics. She has received a USAID Global Development Fellowship, and, in 2018, she and her teammates finished second in the Energy and Resources Alternatives category at the Big Ideas Contest with their venture Trash to Tiles, a precursor to Takataka Plastics. The following year, Trash to Tiles won the Scaling Up Big Ideas category. Early last year, Takataka Plastics won Stanford University’s first Global Energy Heroes competition; soon after, the Clinton Global Initiative University awarded Balcom a COVID-19 Student Action Fund for the company’s face shields. From 2019 to 2020, Balcom was also an inaugural fellow with the Institute for International Education’s Centennial Fellowship. At Berkeley, she’s received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a Chancellor’s Fellowship, and a Tau Beta Pi Fellowship.

The engineering innovations are only one aspect of Takataka Plastics. “I get super excited about the impact Takataka is having in the community through the jobs we create that are transforming people’s lives and through our outreach efforts changing mindsets about plastic waste,” says Balcom, who first visited Uganda as an undergrad with Engineers Without Borders.

The company’s waste collection reduces community health hazards. It employs survivors of war, exploitation, and human trafficking, whom the company connects to care organizations that provide counseling and life skills. And Takataka is growing quickly, too. It’s up to 16 employees, nine of whom, Balcom says, are “former street-connected youth.” 

“Their creativity, passion, hard work, innovativeness, and desire to serve their community inspire me,” she says of her coworkers. “I consider it a privilege to work with them every day.”

Currently, Takataka sells wall tiles and coasters in addition to face shields. Its goal is to be able to recycle 9,000 kilograms of plastic a month in Gulu — half of the city’s PET waste.

Balcom hopes to graduate next May, move back to Uganda, and expand Takataka. “We’re always working on new products, entering new markets, exploring different sales strategies, and hiring new staff. There are always new opportunities, partnerships, and projects,” she says. “We can’t keep up with the orders, so we’re working on scaling up our production capacity.”

She also plans to lecture at Gulu University. “I really love teaching the engineering students,” she says. “They have so many bright ideas!”

“I’d like to thank my mom and dad, sisters, friends, professors, and mentors who have invested in me and encouraged me. Winning an award such as the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize would not have been possible without all of their support,” Balcom adds. “I’d also like to give a big shout out to the Big Ideas competition and Haas [School of Business] startup programs that guided me through developing the initial Takataka Plastics model. And I’d like to thank God for blessing me with so many opportunities in life.”

Student Teams Partner with DoD to Improve Disaster Response

Language barriers, international communiques requiring Embassy review, and disaster workers who are 6,300 miles away — not to mention a global pandemic — were just some of the challenges addressed by UC Berkeley students working with the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces Search and Rescue Unit. This incredible experience was part of a popular class supported by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), in partnership with the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Prototype for FireFly, an augmented reality helmet that “seamlessly connects to a mesh network of drones to provide real-time navigational and situational data to firefighters actively working to suppress wildfires.”

By Sam Goldman 

Language barriers, international communiques requiring Embassy review, and disaster workers who are 6,300 miles away — not to mention a global pandemic — were just some of the challenges addressed by UC Berkeley students working with the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces Search and Rescue Unit. This incredible experience was part of a popular class supported by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), in partnership with the Blum Center for Developing Economies. 

The Royal Armed Forces are among Morocco’s top responders to major disasters, which occurred with a 22-fold increase from 2000 and 2014. Since 2003, the Royal Armed Forces have collaborated with the Utah National Guard through the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program, which seeks to strengthen global security, foster long-term relationships, and directly assist places in need. These responders must make quick life-and-death decisions in crisis situations, often with very little context. To support better outcomes, the UC Berkeley student team developed a prototype desktop application to coordinate disaster operations and monitor real-time data on the ground. 

This team, and five others enrolled in “Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery and Resilience” (IDR3), presented their final projects in a showcase attended by over 50 representatives from the Department of Defense (DoD), USAID, startups, the venture community, and leaders in disaster tech. 

DoD partners from the U.S. Central Command, Army Futures Command, the Utah National Guard, and more were brought in by Kaitie Penry, UC Berkeley’s university program director for the NSIN, a program sponsored by the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering; its mission is to bring new communities of innovators together to solve national security problems by partnering with academia and early-stage ventures.

The NSIN partners “have real-life, challenging, complex problems and are responsible for disaster response, which is what makes these projects such authentic learning,” says Professor Alice Agogino, the founder of the field of Development Engineering and Blum Center associate director of education. “These weren’t toy problems. Some of these projects are going to see the light of day. That’s what’s really exciting about it.” 

Agogino co-taught the course with lead instructor Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas and a researcher in mechanical engineering, who helped pilot an earlier version of the course.

The six team projects were each sponsored by an agency important to national security:

  • Working with the Army Futures Command, FireFly is an augmented reality helmet that “seamlessly connects to a mesh network of drones to provide real-time navigational and situational data to firefighters actively working to suppress wildfires.”
  • Working with U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Coast Guard, iOSOS is a smartphone app that activates during a disaster and “allows the user to send a quick SOS request, helping both rescue agencies and civilians through this streamlined process.”
  • Working with the Utah National Guard and the Morocco Royal Armed Forces, the Digital Disaster Portal is a dashboard and application that agencies can use to coordinate operations and monitor real-time data on the ground.
  • Working with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, ID SCAN is an ID scanner that military personnel can use to update their status and location, which leaders can access in a user interface to make quick personnel-allocation decisions. 
  • Working with the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command – Pacific, which deals with places with varying connectivity during a disaster, the team created new tools for visual and temporal representations of information coming through the various lines of communication used by first responders.
  • Working with Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, the team developed a hangaring planning tool so that military aircraft remain on bases during hurricanes instead of being evacuated, and are thus able to respond more quickly to disaster events.

“The inherent talent of the Berkeley students to solve national security problems that have a real impact is incredible,” says Penry, the NSIN program director at Berkeley. “The projects that the teams worked on will have a real impact in disaster response, making it more effective for the DoD to act quickly and save lives.”

“What was very clear when the students walked down this path is that we didn’t even know our own process for how to hangar aircraft. There was essentially nothing on the board at all,” says  Major Niko Votipka of Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam. “This project was really a forcing function for the maintainers and the weather shop and leadership to really figure out a good process moving forward for something that is so critical and we struggle with every hurricane season.”

These unique and interesting challenges attracted a diverse group of students. More than 60 percent of students who enrolled were women, with 10 academic disciplines represented. “For an engineering class that involves heavy project-based work, this definitely looks different than the overall demographics of the College of Engineering,” Rao says. “Focusing on this type of problem domain — applying innovation to social-impact issues — really drew a different audience, and we’re really excited to continue to build on that at the Blum Center.”

“It was really inspiring to see how evidence-based the students made their decisions,” says Deniz Dogruer, IDR3’s graduate student instructor and a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Group of Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education. “They were really taking into account what they were hearing from their stakeholder interviews to really motivate and justify any pivots or any changes they were making.”

That end-user focus, combined with hefty research into the problems they were tackling, led to a wide array of potential solutions that the teams scrutinized to narrow down to the most effective. “I think that was exciting for some people because the possibilities are really endless,” says Yakira Mirabito, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering on the Digital Disaster Portal team.

Teams had the opportunity to work on-site with their DoD clients. For example, the aircraft-hangaring team 3D-printed some of their prototypes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam and the rest in Berkeley, before shipping their work across the ocean. Similarly, the FireFly team demoed their helmet prototype at an Emeryville fire station. 

“We had an awesome time experimenting and developing our various prototypes, and it was also very exciting garnering feedback from firefighters and other stakeholders regarding the prototypes we developed,” says Nicholas Callegari, a mechanical engineering student. “Most of our team members had not worked with an organization like [the Army Futures Command] before, and it ended up being a great learning experience that exposed us to the managerial styles and organization of a specialized government entity.”

“I thought the projects were extremely impressive and mature,” says Penry. “The level of prototype that most of the teams were able to get to by the end of the semester was extraordinary.”

Going forward, the Digital Disaster Portal team has an invitation to attend the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces’ annual natural disaster mission exercises this fall to demo their tools — tools that the Utah National Guard is also interested in implementing closer to home. “The design challenge that [the Royal Armed Forces] presented was just really what they think they needed,” Mirabito concluded, “and what we presented is taking that idea and kind of exploring multiple facets of it.” That analysis and perspective is exactly what the NSIN course is designed to do — providing DoD units with new insights into possible solutions, and UC Berkeley students with an opportunity to focus their energy and talents on challenges that matter.”

DevEng & InFEWS fellow Paige Balcom wins 2021 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

DevEng PhD student and InFEWS fellow, Paige Balcom, was awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for her work on recycling plastic waste in Uganda. Together with Peter Okwoko, Paige founded Takataka Plastics, an organization that develops innovative solutions for plastic waste and social change in Uganda. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize recognizes undergraduate teams and graduate students who have invented solutions in prize categories that represent significant sectors of the global economy.

Courtesy of Silvia Ahn and Lemelson-MIT

DevEng PhD student and InFEWS fellow, Paige Balcom, was awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for her work on recycling plastic waste in Uganda. Together with Peter Okwoko, Paige founded Takataka Plastics, an organization that develops innovative solutions for plastic waste and social change in Uganda. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize recognizes undergraduate teams and graduate students who have invented solutions in prize categories that represent significant sectors of the global economy. The “Use It!” Category, that Paige won, rewards students working on technology-based inventions that involve consumer devices or products.

Paige was selected through a highly-competitive process that involved three rounds of committees and jury, evaluating the overall inventiveness of her work, the potential for commercialization/adoption of the invention, the systems and design thinking approach applied to the development of the invention, youth mentoring and leadership experience, and faculty recommendations. Winning the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize will provide Paige new opportunities and support for her work as an inventor! Congratulations again!

Warm Visit Week Welcome for Admitted M.DevEng Students

In early April, the first cohort of accepted students in the Blum Center’s inaugural Masters of Development Engineering program (M.DevEng) heard from award-winning faculty, social entrepreneurs, and student researchers and innovators, and also toured labs, Blum Hall, and iconic Berkeley landmarks – all virtually – in anticipation of reuniting in person on campus this fall.

Visit Week on OhYay session with faculty and admitted M.DevEng students

By Jason Liu 

In early April, the first cohort of accepted students in the Blum Center’s inaugural Masters of Development Engineering program (M.DevEng) heard from award-winning faculty, social entrepreneurs, and student researchers and innovators, and also toured labs, Blum Hall, and iconic Berkeley landmarks – all virtually – in anticipation of reuniting in person on campus this fall.

Visit Week included more than 30 events pulled largely from the ongoing spring schedule of classes and events, plus program introductions, colloquia, open office hours, and informal opportunities to meet and socialize.

The kickoff event introduced faculty leads of M.DevEng concentration areas. Blum Center Education Director and Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering Alice Agogino – who founded the Development Engineering field at Berkeley in 2014 – spoke on Sustainable Design Innovations. Blum Center Faculty Director and Thomas Siebel Professor of Computer Science S. Shankar Sastry represented AI/Data Analytics for Social Impact. Blum Research Director and Purendu Chatterjee Chair in Engineering Biological Systems Dan Fletcher introduced the Healthcare concentration, and Vice Chair of the DevEng Graduate Group and S.J. Hall Chair in Forest Economics Matthew Potts addressed the Energy, Water, and Environment concentration.

“We’d like you to let your imagination run about how you can use AI to think about ways of changing the world and to pay attention to social concerns,” Sastry said to the admitted students.

On Monday, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ashok Gadgil welcomed accepted students Zooming in from as far away as Indonesia and Nigeria to his CE209 class on Design for Sustainable Communities. Celebrated for the invention of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove, Gadgil’s lab focuses on development engineering projects to alleviate poverty and human suffering. Guest lecturer Susan Amrose, a former doctoral student at the Gadgil Lab, discussed electrocoagulation techniques to remove arsenic from groundwater in low-resource settings, from Bangladesh to California’s Central Valley. 

On Tuesday, Professor of Nuclear Engineering Dan Kammen lectured on the intersection of religion, faith, and climate justice as part of his ERG160 Climate Justice course, diving into the themes of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ and work by faith-based communities. An internationally known expert on climate policy, Kammen was lead author of the IPCC’s Climate Change report in 2007, which was recognized with a Nobel Prize that same year.

The new cohort joined Professor Agogino and Research Fellow and InFEWS Program Coordinator Yael Perez at their DevEng210 class on Wednesday, where seminar students presented case studies. Sam Miles showcased his OffGridBox, a shipping container retrofitted to provide off-grid energy and clean water, and Adrian Hinkle discussed how to use wastewater to detect COVID-19 hotspots. Visiting Professor of Development Economic Policy and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Louise Fox, also a former chief economist at USAID, sat in on the session and offered feedback to the students. 

Launching this fall, Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering is a new program focused on integrated approaches to address high-impact problems in low-income areas around the world. Headquartered in the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the program combines depth and breadth to equip students with the tools they need to pair technical interventions with societal, cultural, and ecological dimensions. 

“These students are phenomenal,” said Agogino. “It was such a pleasure to see all the things they’ve already done not just academically but also in the field. They’ll be a cohort of change-makers.”

Gadgil’s Infant Warmer ‘Warming Indicator’ upgrade wins Patents for Humanity award

Blum faculty Ashok Gadgil and Berkeley Lab research scientist Vi Rapp (Ph.D.’11 ME) won a “Patents for Humanity” award for their Warming Indicator, a phase-change material temperature indicator that improves the Infant Warmer’s functionality and safety, received a 2020 Patents for Humanity award.

Blum faculty Ashok Gadgil and Berkeley Lab research scientist Vi Rapp (Ph.D.’11 ME) won a “Patents for Humanity” award for their Warming Indicator, a phase-change material temperature indicator that improves the Infant Warmer’s functionality and safety, received a 2020 Patents for Humanity award. The Infant Warmer is a low-cost, convenient, re-usable, and non-electric wrap-around pad that maintains a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius/98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately six hours for a newborn infant.
Read more here: https://eta.lbl.gov/award/honorable-mention-2020-patents-humanity

Jennifer Doudna on the Pandemic Year: The Power of Mission-Driven Science

In this WSJ op-ed, Nobel prize-winning CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna describes UC Berkeley’s research response to the pandemic, including the creation of a new rapid, point-of-need COVID test developed with Blum Center Research Director and CellScope inventor Dan Fletcher.

In this WSJ op-ed, Nobel prize-winning CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna describes UC Berkeley’s research response to the pandemic, including the creation of a new rapid, point-of-need COVID test developed with Blum Center Research Director and CellScope inventor Dan Fletcher.

Read more here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jennifer-doudna-on-the-pandemic-year-the-power-of-mission-driven-science-11616080902?page=1

The Pandemic Pushed This Farmer Into Deep Poverty – Then Something Amazing Happened

NPR: The Togo government partnered with Blum faculty member & I-School associate professor Joshua Blumenstock to use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to find citizens most in need. “Mobile phone data can reveal a lot about income level,” says Blumenstock.”

NPR: The Togo government partnered with Blum faculty member & I-School associate professor Joshua Blumenstock to use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to find citizens most in need. “Mobile phone data can reveal a lot about income level,” says Blumenstock.” Read more here.

Additional Press Coverage:

Wired: A Clever Strategy to Distribute COVID Aid – With Satellite Data
Fast Company: How GiveDirectly is finding the poorest people in the world – and sending them cash
BBC: Wealth and poverty mapped using mobile phone data
The Economist: In poor countries, statistics are both undersupplied and underused

Agogino Awarded for Faculty Service

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino, and on Berkeley Engineering’s faculty since 1984, has received the 2021 Berkeley Faculty Service Award, along with mechanical engineering colleague Oliver O’Reilly, the 2021 award co-recipient.

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino, and on Berkeley Engineering’s faculty since 1984, has received the 2021 Berkeley Faculty Service Award, along with mechanical engineering colleague Oliver O’Reilly, the 2021 award co-recipient.

The Berkeley Faculty Service Award is given annually to honor a member of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate who has provided outstanding and dedicated service to the University.

“In this, of all years, to stand out for effort and dedication, is truly an accomplishment,” says S. Shankar Sastry, faculty director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. “As a testimony to her service, even in the midst of the pandemic Alice has been able to take the lead in getting the new Masters of Development Engineering approved for a fall 2021 start.”

Agogino first established Development Engineering at the Blum Center with a Graduate Group and Ph.D. concentration in 2016. The new MDevEng professional master’s degree program represents a major expansion for the field.

A Berkeley alumna (M.S. ’80 ME), Agogino is the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley Engineering; she is also affiliated faculty at the Haas School of Business, Energy Resources Group, and Women and Gender Studies.

COVID-Scope: Mobile Phone-Based Virus Detection

A collaboration between Blum Center Research Director and bioengineering professor Dan Fletcher, Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Dr. Melanie Ott of UCSF’s Gladstones Institutes is developing a CRISPR-Cas13a-based diagnostic to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

Courtesy Dan Fletcher

A collaboration between Blum Center Research Director and bioengineering professor Dan Fletcher, Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Dr. Melanie Ott of UCSF’s Gladstones Institutes is developing a CRISPR-Cas13a-based diagnostic to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA. This mobile phone-based diagnostic technology aims to provide results in under 15 minutes and could rapidly increase diagnostic capacity worldwide. 

Read the full Berkeley News story here.

Press coverage
Forbes, December 13, 2020
Can CRISPR-Based COVID-19 Testing Using Smartphones Slow the Pandemic?
https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2020/12/13/can-crispr-based-covid-19-testing-using-smartphones-slow-the-pandemic/?sh=49e1919a314c

San Francisco Business Times, December 8, 2020
Covid test may be as close as your smartphone, say UC, Gladstone researchers
https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2020/12/08/covid-19-coronavirus-at-home-test-crispr-doudna.html

Business Insider, December 4, 2020
New CRISPR-Based Test for COVID-19 Uses a Smartphone Camera
https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/new-crispr-based-test-for-covid-19-uses-a-smartphone-camera-1029866479?op=1

ABC7 News, January 11, 2021
Bay Area researchers develop new rapid COVID-19 that uses smartphone camera
https://abc7news.com/cellphone-covid-testing-crispr-test-smartphone-detects-phone-camera/9568999/

Amy Pickering Named Assistant Professor in Development Engineering

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor.

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor. Pickering, the Tiampo Family Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, will commence her teaching and research duties at Berkeley in January 2021.

Professor Alice Agogino, who led the search committee and is the Blum Center’s Director of Education, notes that Pickering’s background ideally matches the needs of the Development Engineering position. She had over a decade of experience in multidisciplinary research in development, high quality scholarship, and an impressive record in both teaching innovations and diversity, equity, and inclusion contributions.

Pickering received a BS from Cornell University in Biological Engineering, a MS from UC Berkeley in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a PhD from Stanford University in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. Her current and proposed research directions are in developing novel water and sanitation technologies, impact evaluation of scalable interventions on child health and development, and environmental surveillance for infectious diseases. She has >70 peer-reviewed publications.

Pickering has been Principal Investigator or Co-Investigator on 22 current or completed research grants from the NIH, NSF, USAID, the World Bank, and foundations including the Thrasher Research Fund, Saint Anthony Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Givewell. She has 15 years of field experience in development in Bangladesh, Benin, India, Kenya, Mali, Malaysia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.

With her strong teaching record in Environmental Engineering and Development Engineering, Pickering said she is eager to contribute to teaching the Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies course and to design new courses, such as Public Health Impacts of Climate Change and Ethics in Development Engineering. She also expects to continue her strong record of mentoring students, especially women and underrepresented minorities. 

Professor Agogino said the search committee was particularly impressed by Pickering’s work with KQED developing an e-book to engage students in STEM topics that featured an inexpensive water purification device she co-designed for use in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an initiative that included collaboration with Blum Center students. Her research has enjoyed strong interest from the press, with articles and podcasts in BBC World Service, New York Times, Lancet Press Office, Everyday Health, The Hindu, World Bank, and the ASME Global Development Review.

Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Now in its sixth year, the Development Engineering PhD program enables UC Berkeley doctoral students from engineering and social science fields to pursue applied technological research in low-resource regions around the world. The InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Water, and Energy Systems—Fellowship, as part of this doctoral program, enables students to work with and for poor communities that face extreme challenges accessing nutritious food, clean and reliable energy, and safe water. Both programs recognize and stand to correct Paul Polak’s observation that 90 percent of the world’s design efforts are aimed at 10 percent of the population.

Among this year’s graduates are: Julia Kramer, who received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Public Health and whose research focuses on global health and equity; Alana Siegner, a graduate of the Energy and Resources Group whose work addresses food distribution, access, and justice questions; and Christopher Hyun, also a PhD graduate of the Energy and Resources Group, whose research addresses water, pollution, and development, largely in South Asia.

Julia Kramer: Design for Global Health Accessibility

Julia Kramer has earned multiple advanced degrees at UC Berkeley: a Master of Public Health, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering. In addition to her scholarly work, she is co-founder of Reflex Design Collective, a consulting firm that uses design thinking to fight social inequality, and Visualize, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering and supporting midwives to screen for cervical cancer.

Kramer’s dissertation, “Designing for Health Accessibility: Case Studies of Human-Centered Design to Improve Access to Cervical Cancer Screening,” is based on her Development Engineering work in Ghana, India, and Nicaragua. She describes the impetus and framework for her research thus: “Our world faces immense challenges in global health and equity. We see huge disparities in access to health care across geographies, and while we have made massive strides in addressing health issues, we know that these disparities persist. In my dissertation, I explore the role of human-centered design to improve global health access. Human-centered design, a cross-disciplinary creative problem-solving approach, has been applied and studied in both academic research and industry practice, but its role in improving global health access remains poorly understood.

“I present research on designing for health accessibility in the context of one particular disease: cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is an illustrative example of the global disparities in access to health care, given that cervical cancer is preventable. Every year, 300,000 women around the world die of cervical cancer, and 90% are  in low- and middle-income countries. My research examines the work of two organizations that created unique solutions to improve access to cervical cancer screening in India and Nicaragua. I developed case studies of each organization grounded in ethnographic fieldwork, including over 250 hours of observation and 15 interviews over two years. Through these case studies, I show how early efforts to understand the barriers inhibiting cervical cancer screening access allow design practitioners to create novel and feasible ways to address these barriers. This demonstrates the importance of design practitioners considering multiple dimensions of accessibility, while conducting design research in order to improve the potential impact of their ideas and prototypes. Overall, this dissertation establishes the foundation of a new framework to ‘design for accessibility’ that can spark further research across sectors, including but not limited to global health.”

Alana Siegner: Education at the Intersection of Food Systems and Climate Change

After graduating with a double major in Environmental Studies and International Relation from Tufts University, Alana Siegner spent three summers in Uganda working on an Engineers Without Borders clean water storage project. Siegner then served as an AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools, working with 8th graders in Boston Public Schools. At UC Berkeley, where she completed a PhD from the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) and was an InFEWS Fellow, she researched sustainable, agroecological food systems and farm-to-school programs as mechanisms for developing student environmental and climate literacy. Her master’s project focused on the San Juan Islands as a case study of high-functioning school food programs and environmental education; and she served as a sustainable agriculture intern for two summers, working alongside small scale diversified farmers on Lopez Island. Siegner has developed, implemented, and evaluated food and climate change curriculum. She served as a graduate student researcher with the Berkeley Food Institute, working on a study of East Bay urban agroecology, with a focus on food distribution, access, and justice questions; and as an agriculture and plumbing systems engineer for the THIMBY tiny house project, a collaboration of ERG students, faculty, and graduate students from other departments.

The dissertation chapter most closely tied to Siegner’s InFEWS Fellowship is “Education: Experiential Food and Climate Change Curricula on Farms, in School Gardens, and in Humanities Classrooms.” It addresses the motivation for creating experiential, interdisciplinary, action- and solution-oriented climate change educational resources for a variety of educational settings. Using an integrated Food-Energy-Water nexus framing, she introduces concepts of systems thinking and experiential learning about natural resources as they relate to climate change education in the United States. Examples of experiential and solutions-oriented interdisciplinary curricula are provided from the San Juan Islands in Washington state, from Oakland, California, and from Washington, D.C. 

Christopher Hyun: The Challenge of Sanitation in Low-Income Communities    

Christopher Hyun has over a decade of experience in South Asia, working on water, sanitation, pollution, culture, religion, and development, particularly in the Ganges River Basin in Varanasi, India. He has worked with multiple NGOs on capacity building, education, and watershed and waste management. He earned a M.Sc. in Environmental Science from Banaras Hindu University, and in 2013 moved to Berkeley to join the master’s program in the Energy & Resources Group, then continuing on to become an InFEWS Fellow and complete his PhD at ERG with a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering.

Hyun’s dissertation, “Shit, Now What? Overcoming the Struggles of Infrastructure, Inequity, and Capacity to Achieve Sanitation for All,” details how and why inadequate sanitation is a hallmark of low-income communities in low- and middle-income countries. He writes: “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) attempts to address this challenge by declaring ‘sanitation for all’ and targeting a 50 percent reduction of ‘untreated wastewater’ by 2030. However, urban areas of low- and middle-income countries have struggled to reach such treatment targets. Since the 1980s, development practitioners and researchers have interrogated the reasons for these shortcomings, primarily focused on the need for decentralized technology; however, increasingly blame has focused on the complexity of social phenomena. My scholarship is grounded in empirical research on the challenge of sanitation in low-income communities. While centered on the crisis of sanitation, I seek to advance and inform critical theoretical and policy-relevant debates on socio-technical systems, local governance, and capacity building.

“I hypothesize that sanitation shortcomings indicate gaps and miscommunications in our collective understanding of sanitation systems. Practitioners and researchers often base interventions on the ‘sanitation service chain,’ which defines the sanitation system as an engineering one as opposed to one with both social and technological dimensions. Therefore, I ask: (1) What are the definitions, functions, and actors of sanitation uncovered across major disciplines? (2) How do these disciplinary understandings compare to baseline understandings of sanitation, i.e. SDG 6 and the sanitation service chain? I led a cross-disciplinary review team from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Columbia University. Our discussion and results provide conceptual clarity to the complexity of sanitation systems through (1) the development of an augmented sanitation framework, as well as (2) recommendations for how cross-disciplinary research can support and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Development Engineering Graduates Producing Solutions Scholarship

Engineers have the potential to play an instrumental role in helping marginalized communities improve their living conditions. That is because engineers are adept at applying the principles of science and math to develop socio-economic solutions. For much of the 20th century, people trained in history, law, and sociology were seen as the primary actors for alleviating poverty. Increasingly, engineers who can assimilate these and other disciplines are today’s poverty alleviation strategists—aware that today’s technological leaps forward are creating inequalities that need multiple forms of redress.

The Development Engineering PhD designated emphasis was launched with this in mind. An interdisciplinary training program for UC Berkeley doctoral students from any field, the program requires dissertation research on the application of technology to address the needs of people living in poverty. Originally seeded by USAID, the Development Engineering field is growing. During the 2018-2019 academic year,18 additional students enrolled in the program representing a growth of more than 160 percent from the previous year. They include nine students from the College of Engineering, six students from the College of Natural Resources, two from the College of Environmental Design, and one from the School of Education. Beyond this disciplinary heterogeneity, the program attracts a diverse pool of students: 50 percent of the incoming cohort are women and 25 percent are underrepresented minorities.

Now in its fifth year, the Development Engineering program is producing a wide range of scholarship and its graduates have gone on to positions in academia, industry, the nonprofit sector, and their own enterprises. Below are summaries of recent graduates’ dissertation research.

Inspecting What You Expect: Applying Modern Tools and Techniques to Evaluate the Effectiveness of Household Energy Interventions (2016)

Author: Ajay Pillarisetti, Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley
Advisor: Kirk R. Smith, Professor of Global Environmental Health
Many low-income families in North India rely on solid fuel use for household cooking, heating, and lighting. Use of these fuel sources result in exposure to fine particles (called PM 2.5) and is one of the leading causes of ill health globally (approximately 4 million premature deaths). This dissertation examines the rollout of PM sensors in these environments, the deployment of 200 advanced cookstoves to pregnant women in India, and examines the adoption rates of various cookstoves in rural districts.

Quantifying the Crisis of Cooking: Next Generation Monitoring and Evaluation of a Global Health and Environmental Disaster (2016)

Author: Daniel Wilson, CEO, Geocene: Sensors and Analytics Connected
Advisor: Ashok Gadgil, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Since the beginning of the modern Darfur conflict in 2003, violence has forced Darfuri families from their homes.The impetus for the Berkeley-Darfur Stove (BDS) is to reduce the burden and danger IDP women face when acquiring fuel in and around the camps. The BDS’s improved thermal efficiency allows women to cook food using less fuel than a traditional three-stone fire.
In the Global South, cooking stoves’ contribution to human disease is comparable to dirty water and is responsible for more annual deaths than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. While biomass-burning stoves generate over 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, the shipping of resources to communities often increases carbon dioxide use. Though estimating carbon dioxide use is often a flawed science, quantifying this ecological and health problem is a first step to addressing the solutions.

Health, Human Capital, and Behavior Change: Essays in Development Microeconomics (2016)

Author: Angeli Kirk, Affordable Internet Research Manager at Facebook
Advisor: Elisabeth Sadoulet, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics
This dissertation combines three empirical studies of household behaviors as they relate to investment in health and human capital in developing countries. The first explores how changes in children’s nutrition in Uganda correspond to household income. The second studies measurement activities in a cookstove intervention in Darfur, Sudan, with insights into what may be missed in traditional evaluation approaches as well as how technology adoption may benefit from an unintended “nudge.” The third evaluates the impacts of a conditional cash transfer program in El Salvador, with a focus on how program compliance and benefits change time allocations among household members.

Case Studies of IDEO.org and the International Development Design Summit (2016)

Author: Jessica Vechakul, Designer and Social Innovation Strategist
Advisor: Alice Agogino, Professor of Mechanical Engineering
In the social sector, programs often fail due to a lack of understanding of the norms, knowledge, and needs of the people who execute and benefit from the solutions offered by those programs. Human-Centered Design (HCD) offers a broadly-applicable problem-solving framework and methods for developing an in-depth understanding of people who are directly impacted by development challenges, generating creative ideas, and rapidly learning from small-scale pilots. This dissertation characterizes two drastically different approaches for teaching and practicing HCD for Social Impact: that of IDEO, a company that pioneered the HCD approach, and that of the International Development Design Summit program, in which students and members of low-income communities learn to design appropriate technologies and launch social enterprises.

Effects of Air Flow Modifications on Biomass Cookstoves (2016)

Author: Kathleen Lask
Advisor: Ashok Gadgil, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Since biomass cookstoves use wood, charcoal, crop residues, and/or animal dung as fuel, emissions from cooking lead to possibly fatal health effects. When researching the effects of the Berkeley-Darfur cookstove, a design said to pollute less, measurement sensors are often designated far away from the source, which miss the cookstove’s combustion efficiency. This dissertation focuses on the pollutant production, measured by the opacity or soot volume fraction of both the Berkeley-Darfur and conventional cookstoves to paint a more detailed comparison between the two.

Designing and Evaluating Novel Approaches to Nitrogen Recovery from Source-Separated Urine (2017)

Author: William Tarpeh, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, Stanford University
Advisor: Kara Nelson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Cattle breeding is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions, using about 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface and producing about 70-120 kg of methane per cow. Recovering nitrogen from collected urine can reduce the costs and environmental impact of mass animal raising. Focusing on how to strip nitrogen with 93 percent efficiency, this dissertation examines a new approach that holds promise for creating greener agriculture.

Harmonizing Technological Innovation and End-of-Life Strategy in the Lighting Industry (2017)

Author: Rachel Dzombak, Blum Center Researcher and Lecturer
Advisor: Arpad Horvath, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Sara Beckman, Professor Haas School of Business
Climate change and a growing global population are placing considerable constraints on material, water, and energy resources. Tracking the product life of LEDs may provide insights as to how products are managed throughout the lifecycle as well as their end-of-life fate. Primarily, this dissertation examines current end-of-life strategies, how various design choices and failure modes influence a product’s options at end of life, and how economic costs and environmental impacts vary among end-of-life strategies.

Designing a Scalable and Affordable Fluoride Removal (SAFR) Process for Groundwater Remediation in India  (2017)

Author: Katya Cherukumilli, CEO, Co-founder, and Technical Lead, Global Water Labs and University of Washington Commercialization Fellow
Advisor: Ashok Gadgil, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Globally, 200 million people are at risk of adverse health effects from drinking groundwater contaminated with geogenic fluoride concentrations exceeding the World Health Organization’s maximum contaminant limit. Although many defluoridation technologies have been demonstrated to work in lab, most have proven inappropriate for developing countries because they are cost-prohibitive, require skilled labor, or are difficult to scale. Activated alumina (AA) column filters are widely used by the upper middle class but production of AA remains costly in terms of money, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions. Eliminating these energy-intensive steps in refining bauxite, a ubiquitous aluminum-rich ore ($30/tonne), to AA ($1,500- $2,000/tonne), has the potential to reduce the annual per-capita material cost of treated water significantly. The purpose of this dissertation is to ascertain the use of bauxite as a potentially inexpensive defluoridation technology through experimental studies characterizing globally diverse bauxite ores and tradeoffs associated with mild processing steps to enhance fluoride removal performance.

Demand-side Knowledge for Sustainable Decarbonization in Resource Constrained Environments: Applied Research at the Intersection of Behavior, Data-Mining, and Technology (2017)

Author: Diego Ponce de Leon Barido, founder of Three Stone Analytics
Advisors: Daniel M. Kammen, Duncan Callaway, and Alexey Pozdnukhov
The global carbon emissions budget over the next decades depends critically on the choices made by fast growing emerging economies. However, few studies exist that develop country-specific energy system integration insights that can inform emerging economies in this decision-making process. High spatial- and temporal-resolution power system planning is central to evaluating decarbonization scenarios, but obtaining the required data and models can be cost prohibitive, especially for researchers in low, lower-middle income economies. Among other things, this dissertation investigates the role and importance of high-resolution open access data and modeling platforms to evaluate fuel- switching strategies. Oil price sensitivity scenarios suggest renewable energy to be a more cost-effective long-term investment than fuel oil, even under the assumption of prevailing cheap oil prices.

Elucidating Liver Fluke Transmission Dynamics: Synthesizing Lab, Field, and Modeling Methods (2018)

Author: Tomas Leon, Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley School of Public Health
Advisor: Robert C. Spear, Department of Environmental Health Sciences
In northeast Thailand, infection with the Southeast Asian liver fluke Opisthorchis viverrini is a public health priority, infecting over 50 percent of the population in some villages and causing 5,000 excess cancer cases per year. People acquire the parasite by eating raw or undercooked fish, a deeply embedded local cultural and culinary tradition. Health education is essential to preventing and controlling the disease, but the environment also plays a major role in enabling and catalyzing transmission between hosts. An emphasis on disease ecology and the environmental determinants of transmission is useful and necessary for public health understanding and for informing and designing future treatment and control interventions. This dissertation takes that approach, investigating each disease host and linkage for the role of the environment in influencing transmission.

Pursuing a Career in Engineering Co-Design: A Q&A with Ryan Shelby

By Tamara Straus

When Ryan Shelby left UC Berkeley with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2013, he and his advisor considered his dissertation unusual. Shelby’s PhD research went beyond traditional engineering. It presented design theory and methodologies and was based on his involvement in building sustainable housing and renewable power systems with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation in Ukiah, California.

“Looking back, I was a bit of an odd duckling,” said Shelby, now a Diplomatic Attaché and Foreign Service Engineering Officer at the United States Agency for International Development in Haiti. “I wanted to do PhD work that was applied and more meaningful in a development context.”

Shelby failed his first qualifying exam. But the setback forced him to delve beyond engineering and become a technology for development polymath. He steeped himself in business, environmental science and policy, ethnographic studies, development theory, information technology, and the history of Native American tribes. When Ryan was handed his diploma, he continued along this interdisciplinary path. During the summer of 2013, he served as a Science, Technology & Innovation Fellow at the Millennium Challenge Corporation. He then worked in Sub-Saharan Africa and other emerging regions as a senior energy advisor for the U.S. Office of Energy and Infrastructure, landing in 2016 the position as a USAID foreign service engineering officer.

At USAID, Shelby has been developing and managing Haiti’s Build Back Safer II program, for which he recently won an award. Build Back Safer II provides local job training and material sourcing for hurricane-resistant building structures. To date, the program has resulted in 4,000 home roof repairs, the training of over 2,000 people (60 percent women) in roof rehabilitation techniques, and the completion of scores of handwashing and toilet facilities in areas damaged by Hurricane Matthew. Build Back Safer’s II next stage of repairs will focus on microgrid rehabilitation, water point upgrades, and sanitary block restoration in health clinics.

At UC Berkeley, Shelby remains a model for engineering Berkeley PhDs who want to do interdisciplinary research in low-income regions and use their technology skills. The graduate program in Development Engineering comes in part out of his quest to do applied engineering at the dissertation stage. To learn more about his trajectory as well as his views on engineering co-design, the Blum Center spoke with Ryan Shelby from his USAID office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

How did your upbringing influence your academic and career pursuits?

I grew up in really rural Alabama, in Letohatchee, where there were about 600 to 700 people. My Dad had a farm there. I always liked to tinker—mess around with my Dad’s tractor, take apart my Mom’s vacuum cleaner. Luckily, my parents indulged me and I had a natural affinity for math. They let me to go to Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University, an historically black college that had a very good engineering program. I majored in mechanical engineering with a focus on propulsion systems. It was 2003/2004 when President Bush talked about going after more alternative, sustainable energy approaches. That was pretty exciting to me, but Alabama A & M didn’t have an energy program. That’s when the dean of my university, Dr. Arthur J.  Bond, told me about UC Berkeley and Professor Alice Agogino. He made the connection for some mentoring with her, and she encouraged me to apply. She said I could pursue design, energy, and engineering work.

Would you advise engineering PhD students to do applied work while in university?

In academia, there’s a lot of amazing ideas and technologies. But transferring those ideas into a practical technology that can be built and implemented at scale and have impact within a short time horizon—that’s not something easily done. Still, I would encourage people do this in an academic setting, because it’s a lot easier to do theoretical and applied work and fail and learn from those mistakes, as opposed to when you’re out in the policy world or in industry. The more you ideate, the more you fail, the more information you gather. It allows your next version to reach a more optimal solution.

How does USAID view university-incubated innovations?

The applied work university researchers do makes it a lot easier for us on the government side to say, “It’s been peer-reviewed and tested. Now let’s learn from what the Ivory Tower has done and integrate the work into our projects.” That’s how USAID under the Obama administration and now under the Trump administration is approaching university innovators. We realize universities have great ideas; they may be too high risk for industry to fund. But the U.S. government is willing to make informed decisions to invest in these technologies, so we can grow them and integrate them into our work—and ideally leapfrog pitfalls some countries face in their self-reliance and overall growth.

Are you working with universities in your Build Back Safer II program in Haiti?

Yes, we are partnering with the American University of the Caribbean in Les Cayes, Haiti and the Swiss Development Corporation to develop training programs on rehabilitation techniques and housing upgrades for homes and other vertical structures that were damaged by Hurricane Matthew. We identify masons and carpenters and others in the community who have some technical skills and interest in learning new vocational skills, and train them in hurricane repair and making proper foundations. We’ve combined that with vendors in the area, to source the right materials, so they can go out and implement a lot of these repairs—on roofs, water distribution points, and on two solar microgrids in the southern part of Haiti.

What combination of skills did you deploy to develop this program?

I designed this program because of my experience with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. Coming in and putting in a solution that does not fit the cultural context is not the best way to ensure sustainability and self-reliance. Rather, you need to understand community needs, understand situated knowledge. In Haiti, we want to give community members access to the latest technology and building techniques. For me, this requires learning the Haitian way of building, and co-creating a shared knowledge base of how we can go out and do housing repair work that pulls from these knowledge bases. One the traditional building techniques here is called clissage, where you weave pieces of wood of varying tensions to create strong foundations and vertical structures. What we’re doing is showing Haitians how they can bolt onto clissage more modern and hurricane-resistant techniques for roof design and installations.

Is there a fairly straight line from your doctoral work to your current USAID work? 

I told Alice [Agogino] it’s like déjà vu. My work in Haiti is almost a mirror image of the dissertation work I did at Berkeley. It’s still housing, design, and rehabilitation work, and it’s also energy systems to provide electricity to support economic growth. This is the exact thing I did with the Native American tribe. I’m using the same research techniques and codesign methodology with these Haitian communities. If I hadn’t done this dissertation work at Berkeley with Native American communities in California, I would find my job at USAID hard to do. I wouldn’t have the theoretical background or the tangible experience to prepare me for this work.

Which thinkers would you recommend to students in development engineering?

I highly recommend [UC Santa Cruz Professor] Donna Haraway’s work on situated knowledge as a core tenet of co-design and co-creation. Situated knowledge pulls from environmental science policy and feminist theory, and provides an intellectual framework for understanding and utilizing people’s knowledge bases. I also recommend [Harvard Professor] Sheila Jasanoff’s work on the co-production of knowledge and [Rutgers University] Frank Fischer’s work on citizens as experts of the environment. Dr. Fisher writes about how communities work with outsiders to understand environmental impacts and how to try to design and implement solutions.

How has the field of development changing, particularly for the U.S. government?

It really hasn’t changed that much between Administrations. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have pushed to work with nontraditional actors, including universities. One big difference with development under the Trump Administration is we’ve increased the focus of self-reliance and co-creation. Our goal is to partner with a host country governments and co-design solutions with them, so that the host country itself can do the implementation work and not have to rely fully on the U.S. government. Under the Trump Administration, USAID is committed to streamlining our procurement approaches and increasing the usage of co-creation design approaches within new awards by 10 percentage points in Fiscal Year 2019. We want to continue to partner with universities, partner with private sector, partner with religious groups, partner with other nontraditional actors—so we can get the best technologies, solutions, and innovations to fit the needs of a host country government and get it out in the field as quickly as possible. The aim is to improve their resiliency and self-reliance and reduce their overall dependency on U.S. foreign aid as well as eventually open up new markets for American goods and services.

What would you recommend to Development Engineering students who want to work for USAID and other governmental organizations?

The transition from a more research background into development or the policy arena can be as perilous as crossing the sea with the sirens Scylla and Charybdis on either side. To navigate this path, I would recommend engaging in more applied research while at Berkeley with professors like Alice [Agogino], Alastair [Iles], Ashok [Gadgil], and Dan [Kammen] to get a better understanding of this space. Next, I highly recommend that students consider pursuing science and technology policy fellowship programs, such as the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program at the National Academies, the California Council on Science and Technology, or the Institute for Defense Analyses Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) Fellowship. These programs are designed to help Bachelor, Master, and PhD candidates and recipients to understand how science is utilized in development and policy making.  My experience as a Fall 2012 Mirzayan Fellow was instrumental in helping me land my job at the Millennium Challenge Corporation and USAID, as the National Academies taught me how to translate science and engineering speak into the language and format of a policy brief.   Moreover, I was able to use my time at the National Academies to conduct informational interviews with development professionals within government as well as in for-profit and nonprofit organizations, to better learn which technology gaps and other seemly intractable problems that were encountering.  These interviews and the knowledge that I gained were instrumental in helping me find and land a position at USAID.

InFEWS Fellows Take on Sustainable Development Goals

By Tamara Straus

The goal of the PhD is to do original research in a specific discipline. That means in-depth and often narrow inquiries that build on academic knowledge. But for many STEM and social science graduate students, the great draw of the PhD is developing research that can have wide societal benefit—in clean water or pollution reduction, for example—and be implemented through government or business.

Since 2017, the Blum Center for Developing Economies has been enabling graduate students to develop societal benefit research through the InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems—program funded by the National Science Foundation. InFEWS provides fellowships and travel stipends for students whose PhD research aims to provide lasting environmental solutions and alleviate poverty in the world’s poorest regions. The program’s mandate is to train a new generation of interdisciplinary STEM researchers and practitioners who can improve the living standards of Americans and meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The requirements are broad. InFEWS Fellows must address challenges at the intersection of food, energy, and water systems. Their research must take into consideration climate variability, water, and pollution, along with changing demographics in a world where the poor and rural have insufficient access to basic resources. To meet these challenges, InFEWS Fellows are asked to engage in interdisciplinary research activities and course work, including human-centered design and lean start-up approaches, as well as pursue immersive lab and field training. Students are also expected to gain experience in needs assessment, analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, and concept testing.

This year’s cohort of InFEWS Fellows includes 37 students from 13 schools and departments at UC Berkeley, including the School of Information, College of Natural Resources, Haas School of Business, College of Engineering, and Goldman School of Public Policy. Sixty five percent of the fellows are women and 25 percent are under-represented minorities, which is typical of STEM programs that address global challenges. In addition, 25 of the 37 fellows are also in the Blum Center’s Development Engineering program, which has similar goals in terms of training engineers who want to use technological innovations to address poverty.

Below are Q&As with four current InFEWS Fellows.

Sara Glade

Sara Glade is a PhD student in Environmental Engineering whose InFEWS work focuses on drinking water treatment technology development and implementation.

Why did you seek to become an INFEWS Fellow and Development Engineering student?

My exposure to Development Engineering began during my undergraduate career when I was introduced to the organization Engineers Without Borders. I became deeply invested in the chapter, working on a water supply project in Haiti and a bridge project in Nicaragua. My passion for water came to fruition in the field in Haiti, after seeing children walk miles to collect polluted water. Here I learned the potential of engineering and water to improve the quality of people’s lives, which inevitably drew me to be interested in researching water treatment technologies for disadvantaged regions.

At UC Berkeley, I have been part of many social impact driven engineering projects. In the course DE 200, I worked with Sanivation, a container-based sanitation company located in Kenya. In CE 209, I worked with Berkeley-based startup SimpleWater to survey rural communities in California with arsenic contaminated drinking water about their water and point of use treatment. I learned first-hand the challenges communities throughout the Central Valley and the U.S. face with drinking water contamination. This ignited a strong interest in using Development Engineering to work on U.S. water issues, which I carried into my research. All of these experiences, before and during Berkeley, ultimately led me to the Development Engineering program.

Throughout my time at Berkeley, I have also grown to better understand and appreciate the link between food, energy, and water systems, and this drew me to the InFEWS program. My current research has also pushed me to think critically about these connections as well.

Tell us about your current research.

My current research started in quite a unique way. A UC Davis professor visited a community in the California Central Valley, in Allensworth, and met several community members looking for appropriate arsenic treatment technology solutions. This professor then contacted my advisor, Ashok Gadgil, because the Gadgil Lab has over 10 years of experience working on a novel arsenic treatment technology called ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (ECAR).

On our first call with several community leaders, we were asked to help treat water on their farm for a livestock application. The development of ECAR at small scale on this farm site would be a unique opportunity for economic development in the community, for fresh food to be available nearby, and could also enable next steps of a demonstration plant and community treatment plant for drinking water. I knew this project would be perfect for my interests in U.S. water, treatment technology development, and implementation.

Thus far, I have conducted lab scale tests to understand parameters useful in designing the field trial, have developed design constraints unique to the U.S. context, have discussed the field trial design with our community partners, and have presented our work to a number of stakeholders, including local nonprofits. The next step of this work is to finish raising funds, and then implement and operate the field trial. Alongside the field trial, I plan to conduct interviews with community members to understand their perception of this new technology. Overall, I hope to increase knowledge around appropriate drinking water treatment technology development and implementation in small, low-income communities in the United States.

What are your long-term goals?

After my PhD, I would like to continue working on development and implementation of water treatment projects, either in the U.S. or internationally, and could see myself working in low-resource regions on projects that are in between basic science and commercialization. It seems amazing technologies and research that could serve the needs of disadvantaged populations sometimes get stuck in papers or at small scale. I hope to work on bridging this gap throughout my future career, with the hopes of bringing to fruition many technologies that otherwise would stay trapped in a text. I am also considering doing a policy fellowship after my PhD. From the work I have done on U.S. water thus far, I have become very interested in how policy can prohibit or enhance access to safe drinking water in affected regions.

Christopher Hyun

Christopher Hyun is pursuing a PhD from the Energy and Resources Group with a designated emphasis in Development Engineering; his InFEWS work focuses on water and sanitation planning.

What drew you to the InFEWS Fellowship?

What drew me to InFEWS is its community of learning. I’ve been working in the development sector for over a decade, gaining experience in income generation, capacity building, and water- and sanitation-related research. I’ve had the privilege of working with environmental organizations and institutions on water and sanitation, such as the Centre for Science and Environment, Banaras Hindu University, IIT-Bombay, and CDD Society in India. Sanitation is not often considered an important sector at the nexus of food, energy, and water, although FEW systems thinking has the potential to help solve sanitation’s challenges; so this is an opportunity for me to learn from other scholars in the InFEWS community. Also, I am currently observing a sanitation revolution occurring in the development sector about which I am excited to share with the community as innovations unfold, integrating with an increasing number of FEW systems. Furthermore, I enjoy contributing to discussions about the relationship between technological innovation and social structures as well as general social and governance perspectives of FEWS.

What are your overall research interests?

I recently completed a research project, working with water valvemen to help improve intermittent water systems and partnering with NextDrop and the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board. As I continue with my PhD research, I hope to uncover pro-poor sanitation solutions that have long-term impacts on food, energy, and water systems in urban contexts of low- and middle-income countries. I focus on the governance of sanitation in urban India, following decision-making by international funders and government officials as well as by the engineers who design low-energy intensive technologies (such as biogas digesters) and the local farmers who reuse the wastewater and fecal sludge. I am particularly interested in capacity building for innovative sanitation solutions and how capacity building is conceptualized and implemented across scales of governance in sanitation.

Why is capacity building so important in your research?

Local officials and engineers often don’t have the capacity to make design decisions, and farmers may oppose new sanitation systems as they would rather obtain fecal sludge directly (but unsafely) from septic trucks. In my research, I aim to understand such local dynamics and to uncover ways to mitigate the gaps between scales of sanitation governance. Capacity building is often considered a solution to such challenges. I partner with the Consortium for DEWATS Dissemination (CDD) in India, internationally recognized for innovations in low-cost sanitation systems, reuse, and capacity building. I have worked closely with CDD, designing and implementing sanitation training focused on CDD’s “toilet to table” philosophy. In research, I utilize an ethnographic approach, conducting observations and interviews with stakeholders, civil society organizations, and government officials.  My goal is not only to uncover how capacity building can be more effective, but more fundamentally how capacity building is being defined and implemented, including by whom and for whom. Uncovering capacity building not only informs development practice but it also helps us understand how and why technological transitions may (or may not) happen, which I believe is at the heart of both Development Engineering and InFEWS.

George Moore

George Moore is a Mechanical Engineering and Development Engineering doctoral student whose InFEWS research focuses on food, energy, water systems with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation of Northern California.

What drew you to research on sustainable energy and water resources?

My first opportunity to work on InFEWS-related research came during my summer research internship at the University of Michigan in 2015. There, I studied a sustainable manufacturing project for an underdeveloped community in Uganda. Reflecting on my own experience growing up as a minority in the rural South, this project made me feel personally connected and empathetic towards underserved communities globally. I read about several case studies where organizations or researchers engaged with communities in developing countries and the original plan of action had to be altered to accommodate for context and cultural values that could not have been foreseen. Although this seems obvious to me now, I was surprised and grew curious about the methods used to design for communities like these in ways that would precipitate not only tangible goods, but also sustainable practices related to the handling of primal needs like food, water, and energy resources.

How did you come to work with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN) of Northern California?

As a PhD student working with Professor Alice Agogino and two other graduate students, I helped plan field research conducted at the PPN’s annual Big Time festival in Summer 2017. There, we were able to observe and engage with the PPN community in their own sacred environment. In addition, we provided an exercise that encouraged PPN members, and others in attendance, to articulate their opinions of the current problems within the PPN community as well as potential solutions to those problems. We offered five suggestive themes to categorize these responses, in which most of them cater to the vision of the InFEWS initiative: Food, Water, Energy, Education, and Well Being.

Since then, we have continued to work with PPN community leaders to establish how to progress with a project that would align the needs of the PPN community with those of our research goals. The PPN community has expressed interest in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Education, and over the past year has started an Academic Success Center, invested in a makerspace, and finished the second year of its annual STEAM summer camp. With this in mind, we have re-framed our research scope to emphasize InFEWS themes within the context of STEAM education and the design of culturally sensitive makerspaces.

What are your long-term goals?

I’m genuinely excited to be working on a project that aligns so much with my personal and academic goals. I think that success for the PPN project requires our roles as facilitators to become obsolete—creating lasting change that will continue long after our presence is removed. Also, we hope that whatever is produced from this collaboration upholds the values of the community. To achieve that goal, we have been careful to minimize the ideas and subtle influences that we might impose as researchers.

Lorenzo Rosa

Lorenzo Rosa is a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management whose InFEWS research investigates where water scarcity may limit energy and food systems.

How have your academic interests informed your InFEWS work?

My training is in engineering, hydrology, and energetics. Before pursuing a PhD at UC Berkeley, I received master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Engineering from Polytechnic University of Milan, Italy and studied abroad at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia. Since 2017, I have been awarded an Ermenegildo Zegna Founder’s Scholarship. Over the years, while studying the chemical processes of engineering as they relate to the environment, I noticed that the biggest environmental polluters are the food and energy sectors. This got me thinking I should focus on energy and food systems and hydrology to develop a framework using water balance.

Why focus on water balance?

An often-overlooked aspect of water requirements for economic activities is that water is a limited resource and some of these activities could be constrained by water scarcity to the point of limiting the development of some assets. For instance, lack of water resources can impede the extraction of some minerals, the generation of electricity from coal fired and solar power plants, the production of biofuels, or the closure of the yield gap in agricultural land. In all of these cases, water scarcity might be a limit to these activities.

While substantial additional water will be required to support future food and energy production, it is not clear whether and where local freshwater availability is sufficient to sustainably meet future water consumption. The extent to which irrigation can be expanded within presently rain fed cultivated land without depleting environmental flows remains poorly understood. It also remains unclear where and to what extent new water demanding energy projects, such as post- combustion CCS and hydraulic fracturing, might be constrained by local water availability.

How does your research on water scarcity differ from other assessments?

Previous efforts have assessed the water footprint of energy and food systems from the life cycle assessment perspective, focusing on a comprehensive accounting of all water costs associated with production and processing, but without examining the availability or source of the required water. The novelty of my research consists in the assessment of the impacts of energy and agricultural systems on the local water balance using a hydrologic approach, identifying the regions in which new forms of potential water consumption from the energy sector could compete with agriculture and other human activities, and areas in which water demand from energy and/or food systems could not be sustainably met because of water scarcity.

I believe neglecting water availability as one of the possible factors constraining the development of economic activities may lead to unaccounted business, social, and environmental risks. By adopting a hydrologic perspective that considers water availability and demand together, my aim is that decision makers, investors, and local communities can better understand the water and food security implications of energy and agricultural production while avoiding unintended environmental consequences.

Tell us about your dissertation work.

My dissertation will provide a quantitative framework to make informed investment decisions involving natural assets that are susceptible to water risks. As such, I am currently investigating where water scarcity may limit hydraulic fracturing and food production–thus creating risks for local populations and investors. My goal is to identify global hotspots of where human activities compete for water allocations, potentially creating social, environmental, and economic risks. My belief is that the limited understanding of the potential impacts of human activities on water resources prevents the implementation of a sound management plan for a sustainable human development. For example, we are depleting ecosystems in rivers because we are taking too much water from them. The classic example is the Colorado River. It runs dry and the water does not reach the ocean. Another example is non-renewable ground water mining. Water that was stored millennia ago is being used unsustainably in India, Pakistan, and Central California, among other places.

They key is understanding where we can increase water production, because we know the population is going to reach 9.5 billion by 2050. We’ll need to add 50 percent of current water production to feed all these people. And so we’ll need to figure out where we can (and cannot) produce more food with water in a sustainable way. In other words, we’ll need to move production where the water is or swap crops or use less water-intensive crops or transport water—so that we can increase food production for 2.8 billion people.

The InFEWS program is supported by the National Science Foundation (infews.berkeley.edu ; DGE # 1633740).

Why Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning? Assessing the Benefits and Challenges at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education

By Nicole Rangel

College graduates with interdisciplinary and hands-on skills are in demand in today’s job market. Because they have exposure to more than one discipline and curiosity about the interplay of fields, these graduates are being positioned as necessary to solve societal challenges–from natural disasters and climate change to automation-induced unemployment and epidemics. This shift in academic training is a response to a growing recognition that social, governmental, and business challenges require the collaboration of people with educational training in engineering, law, business, physical science, medicine, agriculture, economics, urban planning, humanities, and computer science–and, most important, the ability to work together interdisciplinarily.

Yet offering curricula that aims to develop students’ interdisciplinary and project-based learning acumen is a challenge for many institutions of higher education. While there is substantial evidence to suggest this educational approach ought to be prioritized, we know little about academic programs that do prioritize education which prepares students to understand and engage with complex real-world problems.

The Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley has begun to address this research gap by examining curricula that converges these two pedagogical approaches. The Blum Center is one of a number of academic programs across the country [see chart below] that offers hands-on learning experiences, which aim to help students understand their future roles outside the university. The center also facilitates interdisciplinary collaborations among students, researchers, and faculty to solve grand challenges in water, energy, education, healthcare, and wireless communications, among other areas.

The Blum Center is home to Development Engineering, an interdisciplinary field at UC Berkeley created in 2014 that integrates engineering, economics, business, natural resource development, and social sciences to create,implement, and evaluate technologies that address the needs of people living in poverty. Development Engineering’s core class, DevEng 200, is organized around three thematic modules: 1) understanding the problem, context, and needs of a community receiving the intervention; 2) creating effective prototype technologies to social problems; and 3) field testing and assessing the impact of these technologies on the receiving communities.

While the prototypes developed in courses like this one foster interdisciplinary understanding, it is still unclear how they cultivate intellectual strengths from one student in, say, mechanical engineering to another student in, say, public health. In other words, how is the sociological understanding of an engineering student or the design/evaluation skill of a public health student cross-cultivated in this course? How do students push themselves to learn skills that lay outside their expertise under the pressure of academic deadlines? And how do faculty assess aptitude of students in these interdisciplinary skills? The Blum Center is working to understand these questions as well as others, as it strives to provide project-based education that is rigorous not just in process, but also in its interdisciplinary content.

Research about project-based learning has mostly concentrated on K-12 education, and little exists on interdisciplinary project-based learning.Thus in our initial stage of inquiry, the Blum Center has reached out to over a dozen U.S. colleges and universities with academic programs similar to the Development Engineering graduate emphasis, to better understand the broader landscape of interdisciplinary project-based learning in higher education. We administered a short survey, and from the responses received have identified several areas in interdisciplinary project-based learning curricula that merit further investigation. They include:

  1. The experience of co-teaching, specifically between engineering and social science faculty, to better understand how co-teachers encourage interdisciplinarity among students from different majors.
  2. The need to identify best practices among faculty who have taught in this space, with complementary input from the participating students about their perceptions of these approaches.
  3. An assessment of the opportunities and challenges involved in interdisciplinary project-based learning, according to faculty and students. Because interdisciplinary project-based learning is not the norm, it is crucial to understand what faculty and students see as the incentive for engaging in this type of learning and what are the challenges in offering it.

Specifically, project-based learning has been credited for appealing to students’ motivations, strengthening their ability to problem-solve, refining their conceptual knowledge, and fortifying their sense of agency. Interdisciplinarity is recognized as fundamental for preparing students for democratic participation and is a growing imperative for U.S. colleges and universities at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

In line with what the literature suggests, the Blum Center sees promise in project-based learning, particularly when taught with an interdisciplinary approach. In the coming months, we will share a report that aims to deepen our understanding and ability to provide meaningful and effective education that not only benefits students, but also enterprises and communities around the world in need of support.

For an example of the Blum Center’s previous work in this area, see the Development Engineering Toolkit: Lessons on Implementing a New Multidisciplinary Program Uniting Engineering and the Social Sciences

Nicole Rangel is an educator and Ph.D. candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies of Education program at UC Berkeley.

InFEWS Welcomes New Graduate Cohort

Last month, the Blum Center hosted a networking reception for its inaugural cohort of Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (InFEWS) doctoral students.  InFEWS is a prestigious National Science Foundation-funded graduate research program that uses the Development Engineering (DevEng) methodology to create solutions for challenges that span food, energy and water systems in low-resource settings domestically and abroad.

An exceptional and well traveled-group of 19 fellows, the InFEWS Fall 2017 cohort’s research focuses range from environmental science and policy, economics, engineering to social welfare, all of which will help enhance the program’s collaborative and interdisciplinary process. During the reception, Drs. Alice Agogino and Sophi Martin showcased the wide range of resources available to the Fellows, and students shared their research interests and networked with faculty. Students’ research interests include important topics such as resource recovery in rural settings, international development policy evaluation, and access to safe water.

The DevEng program and the Blum Center are excited to welcome these innovative and highly-motivated individuals to InFEWS. Check out infews.berkeley.edu to learn more about the program and to read about the cohort’s progress.

Engineering Improvements for the World

(Published in the Washington Post) By Lina Nilsson and Shankar Sastry In labs around the world, a new generation of engineers is emerging. They are men and women concerned by the gulf between rich and poor and by environmental changes and resource depletion. They are what we call “development engineers” — engineers (and often economics, business and social science majors, as well) who are dedicated to using engineering and technology to improve the lot of the world’s poorest people.

Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship