Sometimes small changes are the best solution to grand challenges. That’s what three students learned this summer when they traveled to Haiti to improve access to clean water for a group of families living in the village of Monchil, a suburb of Jacmel.
History major Sarah Nusbaum ’13 (South Salem, N.Y.), English and psychology double major Madeleine O’Neill ’13 (Katonah, N.Y.), and mechanical engineering major Jessica Rothstein ’13 (Narberth, Pa.) worked with Community Coalition for Haiti to introduce a water filtration system that removes turbidity and treats pathogens.
When they first arrived in Haiti, they found that the families they originally planned to work with did not have turbid water, rendering the team’s filter system over-qualified. But other families in Monchil were very interested in the team’s system.
“[The project] broke down and reinforced our faith in humanity at the same time,” says Nusbaum. “It reminded us that every single person needs to be a positive force in changing the world in whatever way they can because we have so much potential to do better than we are doing.”
Nurturing that potential is one of the primary goals of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program. Engineering is the focus, but Lafayette believes that solving complex problems requires innovative solutions through contributions from both engineering and the liberal arts. Each Grand Challenges team receives a summer research stipend of $3,000 per student, a budget of up to $3,000 for project expenses, and on-campus summer housing after the junior year. Students also receive funding to participate in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program National Summit during their senior year.
The team bought individual filters from a local filter plant for the first group of families to fulfill their commitment. They then implemented their original filter design with the second group of families, which lives in a compound of shacks and cement homes across from their primary water source, the Grand Rivière de Jacmel.
The river, where many people get their water, is lined with heaps of garbage, which attract pigs and other animals. The team did not want to shortchange the original design by installing it without the research necessary to support its long-term maintenance and use, so the students developed a system based on a proven Centers for Disease Control model for water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives.
While most people in the United States overlook clean water as an innate right, it is a luxury with dramatically positive effects for Haitian families, says O’Neill. Clean water is very much tied to money, health, and time.
“A lot of these people have continued to face challenge after challenge without any sort of relief,” adds Rothstein. “Hopefully our water filtration system will provide some ease for a few families. If they don’t have to worry about clean water, then they can focus on other things like food, shelter, and school for their children.”
Improving water and working around abject poverty—Haiti was devastated by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010, making clean water difficult to obtain—weren’t the only challenges the team faced. The students also had to reevaluate their role within the cultural context of the country. For instance, it was considered an affront when the students offered compensation for help from the locals as the students were viewed as partners, not missionaries.
The welcoming nature of the people and their commitment to family and community were present everywhere. Locals eagerly taught the team about their lives and culture and volunteered to help with the filtration system. But the barbed wire, dilapidated buildings, garbage, stray dogs, broken-down apartments, and makeshift shanties are a stark contrast to the vibrant and colorful landscape.
O’Neill admits it was challenging at first to bridge the team’s disparate disciplines, but it didn’t take much digging to find common ground. In many ways, she says, it was the perfect culmination of three years of a liberal arts education.
“We are each sensitive to different aspects of the problem and the solution, all of which are important to maximize the success of the project,” she says. “It was a great experience to learn so much about each other’s disciplines and open our minds to different viewpoints. We are all very motivated by helping others, and this project was a wonderful opportunity to apply that side of ourselves. We definitely felt a stronger connection because of the real-world implications and the immense potential to do good.”