Environmental engineering students work in India for better water
The humanitarian trips that students in Professor Jaehong Kim's course “Environmental Technology in the Developing World” take each spring break have become an established tradition at Yale. For the most recent trip, there were a few new twists.
After a few years of traveling to Nicaragua, the course brought students for the first time to India. There, they worked with a for-profit company — another first for the class. Kim, the seven students, and two teaching assistants worked with Water Health International (WHI), based in Hyderabad, India. The company operates small-scale community water treatment systems and sells treated water to consumers, who cart away water in jars for a small fee.
“It is a great humanitarian operation, but they still make money,” said Kim, professor and chair of the Department Chemical and Environmental Engineering. “It’s a very interesting and eye-opening experience to see such an operation, not only for me, but for the students. They learn that environmental engineering is, of course, about helping people, but it also has a business component to it as well.”
In past years, the class members worked with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which gave the students a more open-ended mission. In those cases, the students in the class would assess the situation and then suggest what sorts of issues needed to be addressed. With WHI, though, problems were already identified by the company. That meant that the company had specific expectations, which gave the current students a more directed mission than those in the past.
“The company had a clear goal: ‘We have this trouble; can you solve it?’” Kim said. “So everyone understood that they were working on real world problems — real problems for a real company that is making real money.”
That, Kim said, gave the students a sense of urgency to their work.
“I told them ‘You’ve been writing reports to professors to get a good grade. For the first time in your Yale education, you’re now writing reports for real people, and they will really take your advice. So … feel that pressure!’”
The company had three areas of concern that they asked the students to address: microbial testing of the water, preventing recontamination of water that consumers have purchased, and regeneration of the activated carbon absorbers.
Student Mitchell Weldon ’17 said working alongside the company’s employees was a valuable experience. He also noticed that the workers paid increasing attention to what the students were doing, observing how they approached certain problems.
The days were long, beginning around 7:30 a.m. and often not ending until late at night. But, Kim said, he made sure the students had some fun — it was spring break, after all. They arrived on the holiday of Holi, a celebration marked with ribbons, colorful paints, food and dances. They also took field trips and spent a day to go sight-seeing in Hyderabad.
“It’s 90% hard work, but 10% cultural experience,” Kim said. “I value the cultural experience very much.”
At the end of each work day, they would meet to discuss that day’s work and how they should plan for the next day.
“But we also talked about what this trip meant to the students,” Kim said. “‘What have you felt seeing people suffering in extreme poverty? What is the role of environmental engineers in this world?’ So there was a lot of emotional talk, too. Environmental engineering is somewhat unique that way — sympathy is a big part of what we do.”
Student Jonathan Simonds ’18 said he and other students welcomed the chance to discuss engineering in a way that went beyond technical details.
“It definitely has a human element to it that you don’t get in many other engineering classes,” he said.
After each trip, Kim’s class meets with other environmental engineering students from Duke and Georgia Tech (where Kim formerly taught, and created the course). This year, Yale hosted the event at the Yale Club of New York City. There, the Yale students shared their experiences, and heard about the other students’ trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Lillian Childress ’17 said taking the course was “one of the cornerstones of my education at Yale.” Hearing the stories of students from the other schools was also enlightening, she said.
“It was clear that this type of class is so critical for shaping any engineering student's experience and worldview,” she said.