A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

A Project-Based Course on Collaboration, Diversity, and Design Thinking

By Jason Liu

How does one bring a social impact idea from conception to reality? 

That question is central to DEVENG C200: Design, Evaluate and Scale Development Technologies, a Development Engineering course taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science graduate students this fall.   

Because the emerging field of Development Engineering is highly interdisciplinary, DEVENG C200 is taught as a collaboration among Blum Center Education Director and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Haas School of Business Professor David Levine, and College of Natural Resources Associate Professor Matthew Potts, all of whom are faculty from the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher and coordinator for the Development Engineering program, also provides support for the student teams, especially in their project formulation and interactions with local communities. 

According to Levine, who specializes in the economic analysis of developing countries, the class is meant to help students practice design thinking and engineering in low-resource settings. 

During the first week of class, students participated in a project fair, where sponsors of ongoing Development Engineering projects introduced themselves to the students. Projects included a technology for arsenic removal from drinking water in California’s Central Valley and a community-based enterprise for recycling plastic waste for infrastructure in Kenya. Students were tasked with reconceptualizing the product design for user needs, performing needs assessments for stakeholders, and analyzing the social integration of the projects in their respective communities. 

“The goal of the class is for the students to learn how a product evolves through user interaction, how it is contextualized culturally and otherwise, and how to improve a design so it better serves the needs of its users,” said Perez, who completed a UC Berkeley PhD in Architecture focused on collaborative design. “Students will need to think beyond their initial conceptions of the project and seek feedback from stakeholders to adjust their ideas to the users’ needs in a particular place and context.” 

Levine, who has taught the course previously, added: “These projects are serving real communities and some will become real solutions that will operate on a real scale. Students will go through needs assessments, use their creativity to find new solutions, develop relevant business plans, and eventually get to see how impactful those solutions actually are.” 

When asked what he thought the most important skill will be for the students to succeed in their projects, Levine responded, “Nothing is more important than listening. The world is complicated and we have to try to understand what the problems are on a deep level. Too often we assume that really smart people at Berkeley have all the solutions and too often they’re wrong. Instead, we need to use all the surveys and data possible to understand the potential solutions to a problem, collect feedback, and continue refining the solution.” 

While listening is an important skill for DEVENG C200 students, Perez noted that the diversity of students is also an important characteristic. 

“Diversity in any company or team improves creativity, brings new ideas, and fosters new ways of thinking,” she said, citing a Harvard Business Review article.

Diversity is indeed reflected in the student makeup of DEVENG 200, in which a third are business students and the rest are pursuing advanced degrees in engineering, education, natural resources, and public policy. More than half the class also hails from outside the U.S. 

Student goals for the semester are similarly diverse. Haley Wohlever, a first-year Mechanical Engineering PhD student, Engineers Without Borders graduate, and fellow in the Blum Center’s program on Innovation in the Nexus of Food Energy and Water System (InFEWS), said, “My goal for DEVENG C200 is to be exposed to the process of creating a working business model to implement technology targeted towards a particular society. [I’ve seen] how multi-faceted these Development Engineering problems are, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to study the social and economic pieces of the solution.” Other students discussed team characteristic goals, such as being transparent, respectful, and proactive, as they formed into eight teams focused on seven projects. 

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One of the most popular projects chosen was TakatakaPlastics, sponsored by Paige Balcom, a Mechanical and Development Engineering PhD student, InFEWS Fellow, and advisee of Agogino. The main goal of the project is to convert the plastic waste in developing countries into durable and affordable construction material.

Explaining what excites her about Takataka Plastics, Balcom said, “I saw how [Takataka Plastics] could make a huge impact on the lives of my Ugandan friends. By turning waste into saleable products, we’re creating jobs, cleaning up litter, reducing public health issues, and reducing greenhouse gases released by burning plastic. Takataka is helping change people’s view of plastic waste from dirty, untouchable ‘rubbish’ to an untapped resource and helping them realize the impact plastic has on their environment.”

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In 2018, Takataka Plastics successfully tested a prototype and recently received its first order from Uganda. DEVENG C200 students will create a marketing strategy to franchise the project across Uganda, design additional products from the available plastic, and tailor the technical product to better satisfy user needs. 

Another project, Air Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation (ACAIE): Arsenic Solutions, was introduced by InFEWS Fellow Dana Hernandez, an Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil and other members of his lab to develop an affordable arsenic removal treatment technology. The technology will provide clean water for communities in California’s Central Valley and has scalable prototypes in development. ACAIE: Arsenic Solution won Berkeley’s Big Idea Contest last year. Students will work with Hernandez to socially integrate the technology into the communities of the Central Valley, scale the project, and create a business model for the product. 

DEVENG C200 Students Adrian Hinkle and Soliver Fusi, both InFEWS PhD Fellows as well, are leading the Urine to Fertilizer project, which focuses on converting urine into an affordable fertilizer that increases food production while promoting sustainable sanitation in Kenya. Fusi said, “I’m attracted to the fundamental premise of my work because I’m not creating anything new–I’m just finding ways to make do with what we already have, such as urine.” Previous researchers, working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kara Nelson, have successfully tested a proof of concept in Kenya in 2017 while Fusi and Hinkle will finalize technical research, the needs assessments for their Kenyan stakeholders, and the economic viability of urine-derived fertilizers with the students of DEVENG C200.

Anaya Hall, an Energy and Resource Group Ph.D. student and InFEWS Fellow, is leading the Peel: Scaling Compost for Carbon Sequestration and Community Resilience project, which addresses the inefficiencies and significant greenhouse gas emissions coming from conventional composting practices in California. With the project still in its early stages, students will work on solving operational questions, such as how to scale and where to site the project, while also determining if compost utilization can be turned into an effective, socially beneficial, and environmentally friendly business model. 

Another project, Aakar Innovation, seeks to address the dearth of effective menstrual hygiene management in India through environmentally friendly, comfortable, and convenient menstrual pads. Sponsored by Aakar Social Board Members Jaydeep Mandal and Ajay Muttreja, Aakar Innovation aims to destigmatize menstruation and empower females in rural India. Students will work with the Indian nonprofit to conduct needs assessments and create a financial strategy to scale the project. 

Meanwhile, the Edu-Comp project is working to find bothsustainable technological and educational solutions to food waste at the Native American Yocha Dehe Wintun Academy, a school for indigenous people located near Sacramento. The project sponsors are Yael Perez and InFEWS Fellow George Moore, a Mechanical Engineering student of Professor Agogino, who are building on the work of students in Professor Kosa Goucher-Lambert’s ME290 class last spring. DEVENG C200 students will work to find educational supplements to technological solutions, customize the device itself to fit the needs of the school, and determine benchmarks for success.

Lastly, Shelby Witherby, an InFEWS Fellow with a PhD in Developmental Engineering, is leading the SAFR: Fluoride Removal project, which addresses the lack of an affordable solution to fluoride contaminated drinking water in rural India. Several field tests for the project have been completed and Witherby hopes to finalize the design of the prototype, address waste disposal, and organize local maintenance for the system with DEVENG C200 students this semester. 

By the end of the class, students will have immersed themselves in these projects and, as Professor Agogino stated, will have learned methodologies for working with underserved communities and developing  integrated solutions for complex sustainability challenges.

“Ultimately,” she said, “they will have also potentially co-designed innovative solutions for communities in need.

 

A Course for Addressing Wicked Problems in the Bay Area

A Course for Addressing Wicked Problems in the Bay Area

When fourth year media studies student Erik Phillip came across a flyer for the Blum Center’s Development Engineering course Hacking4Local, he was interested but wary.

“I thought I’d be the only undergraduate and the only non-engineer,” he said. “That was a terrifying combination.”

But Phillip, who was born and raised in Oakland and is proud member of its African American community, decided to go to the course’s information session anyway because of the changing economics and demographics of his hometown. He quickly learned two things: first, that the instructors of Hacking4Local sought students from multiple disciplines; and second, the course’s aim was to teach students how to design solutions for Oakland on complex topics such as homelessness, low-cost housing, and high-quality education.

Phillip had no delusion that he would walk away from the course in May with a solution to the affordable housing crisis, which was the subject he chose to focus on with a team of five students. Rather, he said, his expectation was and remains “to learn how the affordable housing crisis came about and how the systems around it works.”

Mostly, he said, he has been amazed how much he has learned due to course’s unusual approach, which combines pedagogies in interdisciplinary project-based learning, human-centered design, the flipped classroom, and student team learning as well as input from a half dozen professors and instructors, including Public Policy Professor Dan Lindheim, former City Administer of Oakland, and guest lecturers such as Steve Blank, whose Lean Launchpad and Lean Startup methodologies have been embraced by Silicon Valley startups and the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps.

Hacking4Local is a hacking course only in name. Its first priority is framing a problem to be solved. While some of the student teams exploring local transportation emissions, equitable health access, and Oakland hills fire mitigation are using algorithms and data analysis in their inquiries—the primary method of the course is gathering information through research and interviews (at least five per week), synthesizing that information into eight-minute presentations (during which the instructors serve as a council of critics), and iterating and refining ideas.

Students get the real-world experience of working on problems identified by local government agencies, nonprofits, or companies. And at the end of the course, they must deliver their solutions, which can vary—a physical product with a bill of materials cost and a prototype, a web product with users, a mobile product with working code and users, or a service or policy solution with an implementation plan and anticipated cost of delivery.

The instructors—Development Engineering Lecturer Rachel Dzombak, Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Public Policy Professor Dan Lindheim, and Haas School of Business Entrepreneurship Lecturer Steve Weinstein—have assembled a reading list that familiarizes students with how to work on complex social issues, consider their historical and political contexts, and engage with communities affected by a variety of overlapping problems. The class introduces students to methodologies such as the “mission model canvas,” “customer discovery,” and “agile engineering,” and exposes them to guest speakers who have experience in Oakland communities and politics.

“The course is about design for the public good and helping students hone their skills on both qualitative and quantitative methods for understanding stakeholder needs and getting community feedback on possible solutions,” said Agogino, who serves as chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering and the Blum Center’s education director. “Students learn to value the complexities of government, the people it serves, and other stakeholders. They learn that as with any organization, there is a difference between formal power and informal power.”

Added Dzombak: “The class challenges students to think through the root cause of problems, the systems in which problems exist, and to understand potential consequences of interventions. Students are learning to navigate ambiguity using a human-centered process and gaining critical knowledge about politics and governance, which is rare for an engineering course.”

During one four-hour class in March, Phillip and his affordable housing teammates—Surabhi Yadav, a master’s student in Development Practice, Ben Truong, an undergraduate cognitive science student, and Andre Balthazard,  an undergraduate operations research and management sciences student—presented their findings on why affordable housing in Oakland has been inadequate and what they might devise for their client, the Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA). The team, which has conducted over 60 interviews with Oakland residents and community stakeholders, argued that one of the key problems in Oakland real estate is the lack of involvement from residents on issues of equitable development.

To this point, Steve Blank quipped: “The joke about community meetings about real estate development is they’re filled with retired people and stakeholders.”

The team members nodded. Phillip pointed out that since 2010, the Bay Area has added 722,000 jobs but only 106,000 housing units.

Blank pressed the group: “Yes, but there are multiple housing crises. Which one are you solving for?”

In an interview after the class, Surabhi Yadav said her team is aiming to solve for longtime residents who feel they are at risk of eviction or their children will be unable to live nearby. Yadav noted that although many longtime residents do not have individual financial or political power, they could have collective power.

“Unionizing power is time consuming to create,” noted Yadav. “Still, we’re questioning whether we can develop tools that will help Oakland residents harness their collective power. And we’re trying to figure out if we can help SUDA measure and develop what effective community development looks like.”

Yadav, who co-designed and co-taught a similar course for engineering students at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said classes that involve multiple disciplines and hands-on learning are good at developing students’ professional skills in communication, teamwork, managing priorities, and navigating ambiguities.

“You have to learn how to take feedback in these kinds of courses and go with the flow,” explained Yadav. “It’s about structuring uncertainty, because the logistics and pedagogy and learning outcomes of the class are very different.”

Barbara Waugh, an executive in residence at Haas, Oakland resident, and guest lecturer for Hacking4Local, sees another strength of the course: higher team performance.

“Diverse teams under- or outperform homogeneous teams depending on whether they ignore or leverage their diversity,” she said. “Shared passion for a project can be a great lever and our Hacking4Local teams demonstrate both the passion and the higher performance that leveraging diversity offers.”

—Tamara Straus

“Imagining the Future Helps Us Engineer Toward that Future”: A Q&A with Will Tarpeh

“Imagining the Future Helps Us Engineer Toward that Future”: A Q&A with Will Tarpeh

When Will Tarpeh was an undergraduate at Stanford University, he didn’t know if it was possible to be a research engineer who works in the developing world. His global interests started in high school, when he learned that more than 2 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. And they expanded throughout college, as he studied chemical engineering and African studies and interned at Sarar Transformación, a Mexican nonprofit focused on sanitation. “That’s when I got interested in ecological sanitation,” he said, “which is just the idea of using waste as fertilizer.”

Tarpeh, now an assistant professor in chemical engineering at Stanford, says his professional turning point happened at UC Berkeley in 2013, the year the Development Engineering program started. The Blum Center sat down with Tarpeh to learn more about his views of Development Engineering and how his research combines electrochemical engineering, global sanitation, and resource recovery.

How did Development Engineering shape your academic work in global sanitation?

It was extreme serendipity. Development Engineering started the year I got to Berkeley and made a lot of things possible. It gave me a formal structure—having a chapter in my dissertation that was explicitly about Development Engineering and about my sanitation work in Kenya. If it weren’t there and if I hadn’t gone to Berkeley, I might not have explored this part of my academic identity in as much detail. Now it’s such a crucial part, I can’t imagine being an academic without it.

What else drew you to Cal?

I wanted to work with Professor Kara Nelson, because she has a process engineering focus for achieving sanitation goals. She had a Gates Foundation grant that was part of their Grand Challenges exploration, and she and a post-doc were working on the idea of using ammonia from urine to disinfect feces. I tagged along and went to the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Expo, which was my dream at that time. I got to see all these cool toilets, and realized there was a large community of academic researchers who shared my interests.

How did your own research develop?

My first year in graduate school I reviewed journal papers and focused on unanswered questions. That’s when we landed on urine and recovering nitrogen. We chose urine because there were lots of motivations for separating out urine and feces. And from a chemical engineering perspective, we thought nitrogen from urine could be useful because nitrogen fertilizers are central to modern society—they’ve helped feed a growing population. We focused on what we could borrow from other subfields, such as the extraction of nitrogen from wastewater in the U.S., and also on what we could dream up on our own to address sanitation access.

How do you see your academic contributions?

My first paper as a PhD student compared materials that adsorb or concentrate nitrogen in urine. We compared four different adsorbents. Then we took the work to the field and published it in the Development Engineering journal—which meant characterizing the technology in lab, bringing it to the field, and in between looking at the operating and design parameters to show the trajectory as a contribution. Another contribution is in electrochemical nitrogen recovery. Electrochemistry and wastewater treatment have met in earnest over the past decade or so. I’ve been part of the first group of people to apply electrochemistry to urine and to extract nitrogen in a new way we call electrochemical stripping. It’s set some records in terms of nitrogen recovery efficiency and resulting energy efficiency.

You said in a previous interview that “a lot of the solutions to the world’s most pressing problems are in the minds of children who are simply preoccupied with survival.” Why are children a place to understand the world’s grand challenges?

Grand Challenges are really interesting because they are descriptive in nature. Through them, academics, UN representatives, and others try to describe a reality that millions of people experience. But I think the expertise really lies in the communities who experience the problems. We as scientists can try to lend our technical expertise in other communities—but the people who live in those communities are the real experts. That’s how I approach my work. This comes in part from growing up in a low-income household in the U.S., and knowing that resource-constrained communities have valuable skills and life experiences to solve their own problems.

How new is the field of Development Engineering?

 It’s not new in some ways. People have been doing this kind of engineering for as long as there’s been inequality. What’s new is that we’re studying how we do it and thinking about better ways to do it. Ten years ago, it was news to people that you need to engage the community when you design for it. It really was. We would learn about implementation failures all the time—and be surprised that engineers didn’t remember to ask people about their sanitation needs and, as a result, the new toilets got turned into closets because they had roofs. Now, I see the frequency with which that kind of thing is reported going down, which tells me there’s value in the Development Engineering enterprise. It formalizes things in a way that engineers who don’t focus on development can appreciate.

How important is field work to Development Engineering?

It’s a crucial site of learning. Going back and forth into the field has been extremely valuable to my research. Maybe the traditional model of humanitarian engineering was: you develop something in the lab about a problem in a developing community; you say, I have an answer for that; you characterize it in the lab; and you go out and say, here it is. But then you realize you were designing for constraints that didn’t reflect reality in the community. Development Engineering is about iterating. Over the course of my PhD, I went to Kenya and worked with Sanergy. That’s when I realized they were collecting urine but not yet creating value from it. Then I tinkered in the lab on the urine research, and spent the next four years going back and forth to see what worked and made adjustments, which allowed for the rigorous study we expect in academic communities.

 Is being a Development Engineer a liability in academia?

I don’t think it is the liability it was five or ten years ago. It’s attractive now to do Development Engineering because of the huge impact you can have. Another part of this is students are demanding training to try to solve development problems. I have engineering students who say global sanitation really gets them moving and motivated. From a disciplinary perspective, Development Engineering is one of the ways we stay relevant to our students and to the Grand Challenges that people are facing around the world.

Are you seeing more academic engineers like yourself who do applied research in developing countries?

I do feel there’s a generation of professors tying loose ends together and thinking about ways to leverage skill sets that are no longer within one discipline. Alice Agogino always talked about the wicked problems that refuse to be classified in one silo and that demand multiple approaches. Many professors now have multiple skill sets and are oriented toward solving wicked problems. I feel I’m part of this, combining electrochemical engineering, global sanitation, and resource recovery.

Do you think it’s significant that most of your mentors have been women?

Yes, and that was a recent epiphany. After Berkeley, I did a post-doc at University of Michigan, where I also was advised by two women—Nancy Love and Krista Wigginton. Female professors have impacted me, particularly by seeing the extra obstacles they have to go through and the strategies they use to succeed. Being supportively mentored by advisors who are different than me has prepared me to support students from diverse backgrounds in my own career.

How do you advocate for STEM inclusion and equality now that you’re a professor?

I recommend students and colleagues for awards, formally by writing recommendation letters and informally by suggesting people for collaborations and so on. Also, being a black male, I try to serve as a role model for students. At Stanford, I give lunch talks with minority or under-represented students. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it could be a high impact intervention for one of them. I also work to design impactful programs. Kara [Nelson] and I were involved in the Graduate Pathways Symposium at Berkeley for underrepresented minorities to apply to grad school. I also make sure when I work in Kenya, I give author credit to the local researchers on my academic papers.

 When will we achieve global sanitation?

There are some estimates that low and middle-income countries are not going to fully address the problem by 2050. One argument is that we won’t get there because of the barriers to creating centralized wastewater treatment facilities. But there are other options, namely resource efficiency. A paper I’m working on argues that if we take resource recovery one step further and bake sustainability into every process we do, we can minimize the inputs for everything we produce. The paper encapsulates the idea of the circular economy, of resource recovery. Of course, being a urine researcher, I believe separating urine has a role to play in that. I believe imagining the future helps us engineer toward that future.

—Tamara Straus

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