University of Colorado at Boulder - Creating Appropriate Technologies for the Developing World

In 2002, NCIIA funding supported development of the Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology (CAST) at UC Boulder. Two courses were modified using NCIIA funds: Engineering Projects and Sustainability and the Built Environment. In the courses students learn the basics of sustainability and create novel devices to combat water, sanitation, energy and health problems in developing communities. CAST is firmly established at UC, but according to program creator Dr. Bernard Amadei, there is much work to be done.

Creating Appropriate Technologies for the Developing World

Program goals and structure
In 2002, NCIIA supported development of the Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology (CAST) in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at UC Boulder. CAST is part of the ambitious Engineering for Developing Countries (EDC) initiative at UC, whose goal is to develop internationally responsible students who can create sustainable technologies and business solutions applicable to development problems faced by poor communities around the world. CAST is the research and development arm of EDC.

CAST provides the following services:

  • Database development and maintenance – the center archives existing technologies aimed at the developing world, as well as organizations currently providing services to the developing world.
  • Testing and improvement of existing technology – although a wide range of appropriate technology systems already exist on the international market, many of these systems have not been tested under variable conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) and are poorly documented. The center responds to this need by testing existing technologies and proposing modifications.
  • New research – the center creates novel technologies and transfers them to the developing world.
  • Education and training – the center serves as a training ground for students, practicing engineers, and entrepreneurs in the developed world.

The majority of NCIIA funding was used to modify two courses within CAST: GEEN 1400 (Engineering Projects) and CVEN 4838/5838 (Sustainability and the Built Environment).

GEEN 1400 – Engineering Projects
GEEN 1400 is a three-credit, first-year course offered each semester through the Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory (ITLL) in the College of Engineering. The course consists of ten to twelve modules emphasizing different aspects of engineering, integrating hands-on learning with project-based, team-oriented design experiences. The purpose of the course is to provide students an introduction to engineering through a series of small projects completed in interdisciplinary teams.

With NCIIA funding, Professor Bernard Amadei developed GEEN 1400-020, a special sub-section of Engineering Projects. The course operates in much the same way as GEEN 1400, but focuses on creating appropriate technology for solving water, sanitation, energy and health problems in developing communities.

Dr. Amadei calls GEEN 1400-020 a “great retainer. We’ve found that students who take the course are much more likely to remain engineering majors.”

CVEN 4838/5838 – Sustainability and the Built Environment
This course, open to undergraduate and graduate students, introduces students to the fundamental concepts of sustainability and sustainable development. Emphasis is placed on understanding natural systems, the interaction of the built environment with natural systems, and the role of technical and non-technical issues in shaping engineering decisions.

NCIIA funding for CVEN 4838/5838 was used to hire Jon Schulz as a guest instructor in spring 2003. According to Dr. Amadei, Schulz, a former NASA researcher specializing in sustainability and recycling technology, “provided a unique and practical perspective on sustainability and sustainable development that was of great benefit to the students that took the course. Jon brought a professional perspective and showed how sustainability can work in the real world.”

History and context
The Engineering for Developing Countries initiative is based on the idea that, in response to the global nature of the problems earth is facing today and is likely to face in the near future, engineers in the industrialized world need to provide leadership in the development of sustainable technologies. The engineer’s role needs to take multiple forms, from creating physical infrastructures to designing solutions that promote sound environmental management practices.

The challenge is to educate engineers who:

  • have the skills and tools to address the issues our planet faces today;
  • are aware of the needs of the developing world; and,
  • can contribute to the relief of endemic problems of poverty in developing communities worldwide.

Through EDC and CAST, UC Boulder hopes to create such engineers.

Five to six E-Teams consisting of four to five students each form in GEEN 1400-020. Before forming teams, each student takes a personality test that places him or her in one of four quadrants. Professor Amadei then assigns students from different quadrants to work together on the same team. Says Professor Amadei, “For our purposes, the personality test method is the best way to make sure teams are interdisciplinary. The students are all freshmen, and a number of students are undeclared, so we can’t go by major. This way we know there will be a multiplicity of approaches within each team.”

Innovative and entrepreneurial outcomes
Some of the GEEN 1400-020 fall 2002 projects were:

  • Production of biofuel
  • Production of biogas from rotting bananas
  • Design and construction of a water turbine
  • Water heating for refugee camps
  • Pressurized Filtron system for water filtration
  • Solar water pumping

Fall 2003 projects included:

  • Power production using a waterwheel
  • Thermoelectric cooling
  • Steam power generation
  • Solar/human power outlet
  • Briquetting
  • Improving cooking stoves

The biofuel E-Team, called Boulder Biodiesel, has successfully commercialized their product. They run a biodiesel processing plant and filling station, from which they distribute their fuel – processed waste cooking oil from the university cafeterias. This fuel, made from vegetable oil, can be used in any diesel engine without any modifications to the vehicle. It’s a renewable, non-toxic, biodegradable and domestic fuel with a similar engine performance as diesel fuel, but doesn’t require petroleum.

Challenges and lessons learned
According to Dr. Amadei, the biggest challenge related to EDC and CAST is getting people to understand the importance of helping communities in the developing world. “Everything today in the developed world is high-tech, with nanotechnology and genetics being on the forefront," he says. "It’s very hard to convince people that low-tech ventures like we see in GEEN 1400-020 are important, and even critical, to our future. The NCIIA funding we received, however, has gone a long way in helping us change that attitude.”

Future prospects
CAST is firmly established at UC Boulder, but according to Dr. Amadei, there is much more work to be done. “There are many things ahead of us,” he says. ‘We need to learn how to train people in the developing world to use our technologies. We need to do more scientific work. We need to do more research, more testing. We need to create students who become civil engineers focused on the developing world.”

Supplementary materials
EDC website: