Once a week for two hours, students in majors ranging from agricultural economics to nursing to engineering gather in Armstrong Hall and work toward a common goal: designing, building and implementing water treatment systems for small, impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic. These students are all a part of the course “Water Supply in Developing Countries.”
“It’s not your typical class,” said Thomas Fisher, a senior in agricultural economics who has taken the class for two years. “It’s interdisciplinary, so you’re not with a bunch of students from your major. You’re truly working together to solve problems that our world is facing.”
The course is taught by four professors from different fields (agricultural economics, nursing, civil engineering and food science) who started the class in August of 2012. One of the professors, Ernest Blatchley, previously taught a similar class with only engineering students. He said it became obvious fairly quickly that engineering problems are not what limit the solution to unclean water in these communities. This discovery led him to join with professors from other areas of study to create a class with an interdisciplinary approach to the issue.
“The engineering solutions are the easy part of the equation,” said Blatchley. “It’s the non-engineering, non-technical parts of the problem that are much more difficult and have prevented implementation in a lot of developing countries.”
Fisher said that one of the most important skills in terms of this project is communication. He emphasized the importance of understanding the culture in order to create a system that will be most helpful to the individual community.
“We don’t want to tell them what to do. We want to help them to come up with their own solution,” said Fisher.
The class has already implemented one water treatment system in Las Canas in the Dominican Republic. The system uses three barriers to purify the water: a sand filter, a hollow fiber membrane and chlorination. The class has also identified the next three communities where they intend to implement similar systems. In May, the class will travel to the Dominican Republic to work on planning and further establishing relationships with those three communities, as well as continuing their support to the Las Canas community.
To prepare for this trip, the class wrote proposals to solicit funds. In addition to applying for grants, the class partnered with Purdue Crowdfunding to develop a fundraising campaign to help with travel costs for the upcoming trip. For more information or to contribute financially, visit https://crowdfunding.purdue.edu/project/2026.
“We’re not just going there and giving them a water (treatment) system. We’re working with them to help them understand why having cleaning water is important for their health,” said Fisher.