Rising to the challenge

In the UW’s Grand Challenges Impact Lab, students like Cristina Lopez, ’19, work to address real-world problems — and increase their own cultural awareness.

Unpacking her bags in the dorm-style room in Bangalore, Cristina Lopez never suspected that in just 10 weeks, most of what she’d return home with wouldn’t fit in her luggage.

“I learned so much in India, it’s difficult to put into words,” says Lopez, who received her bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering last spring.

Through her participation in the UW’s Grand Challenges Impact Lab (GCIL) in winter 2019, Lopez gained hands-on experience helping to troubleshoot one of the biggest problems in India’s third-largest city. Known as India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore (officially renamed Bengaluru in 2014) is a modern, high-tech city that is expected to run out of groundwater by 2023.

A UW study abroad program offered through the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE), GCIL empowers undergraduate and graduate students across all disciplines to turn knowledge into impact by working on some of the century’s most pressing problems, from food insecurity to water scarcity to a lack of adequate housing and education.

In Bangalore — an unfamiliar environment for most participants — students are quickly taken out of their comfort zones and encouraged to adopt a beginner’s mindset, free of preconceptions and open to new ideas. As students learn how to take auto rickshaws and eat meals with their fingers, they realize the value of new methods and ways of thinking.

After three weeks of classes and field trips that help students develop their problem-solving skills, the students spend seven weeks working with local organizations that are already addressing big challenges. ILK, a partner consultancy in Bangalore, helps recruit local organizations and deliver the program.

From improving low-income housing with new building materials to helping waste pickers become entrepreneurs, organizations in Bangalore are working on innovative solutions — so it’s an ideal setting for hands-on engineering education.

“It’s a chance for students to get out in the real world and put in action what they’ve learned in class,” says GCIL founder and CEE professor Julian Marshall, who launched the program three years ago with support from CEE, the College of Engineering and the Office of Global Affairs. “It’s a tremendously powerful experience for students. They are idealistic, they want to change the world and they want to learn how to do that.”

Heading out of the classroom

After breakfast at the canteen, Lopez and three teammates packed what they needed for the day: a measuring tape and Parle-G biscuits, the Indian equivalent of graham crackers. They wouldn’t be back until after lunchtime on their first day with no supervision.

Traveling an hour outside the city, the team was headed to the rural Rajiv Nagar primary school. There they would learn from the headmaster and students about the school’s rainwater harvesting system, which was in a state of disrepair. The outing was the first of many the students would undertake through their partnership with Biome Environmental Solutions, a design firm they were working with to help address the local water crisis.

“It’s extremely hard to solve an issue if you can’t put your finger on exactly what the problem is,” Lopez says.

The students sought input from local residents who experienced the water crisis on a daily basis. In addition to schools, they visited a variety of homes throughout the area, from villas to apartment complexes, often accompanied by a translator.

“During the first three weeks of the program, we learned a bit of the local language, local gestures and the history of the area,” Lopez says. “This helped us communicate and understand body language, which is very important in India.”

The students sought input from local residents who experienced the water crisis on a daily basis. In addition to schools, they visited a variety of homes throughout the area, from villas to apartment complexes, often accompanied by a translator.

Failing forward

The whiteboard was nearing capacity. On the school campus where the students lived and held frequent team meetings, they were busy brainstorming solutions to the problem they had identified: lack of awareness about water-saving techniques. One idea stood out: developing a children’s book that explains rainwater collection.

Written in both English and Kannada, the primary language in Bangalore, “Maya and the Magic Puddle” tells the story of a young girl who learns how to collect rainwater to clean her dirty clothes so she won’t be teased at school. Although children liked the story, the UW students struggled with how to market the book. Would parents or nonprofits be interested in it?

They soon faced an even bigger dilemma. Through ongoing conversations with local residents, the students began to realize that people of all ages already knew about water conservation methods — even if they weren’t implementing them.

With only three weeks left in the quarter, the team made a difficult decision. They would have to try a new strategy; what they were doing simply wasn’t working. To truly understand the problem at hand, they’d have to engage more deeply with the local population.

“Being able to fail and learn a tremendous amount from it is an important component of the program,” GCIL assistant director Deborah Havens says. “It highlights the importance of reiterative attempts for an improved solution. That is an uncommon opportunity.”

We were told that we would fail a lot and taught that failure was part of the road to success.
Cristina Lopez
Using a hose, men fill a tanker truck with water pumped out of a deep aquifer — a layer of underground permeable rock, gravel or sand that holds water.

Problem-solving perseverance

The two-story home was unlike any the students had seen. It was earth friendly in every way, from solar panels to a lush rooftop garden to the rainwater catchment system and recharge well outside, which funneled water back into the ground.

The home was designed by its owner, S. Vishwanath — the founder of the agency the students were working with. Seeking an expert opinion, they had requested a meeting.

“Vishwanath had been working in the field,” Lopez says, “so we asked him, ‘What do you think would fix the water scarcity issue?’”

Having founded Bangalore-based Biome Environmental Solutions a decade earlier, Vishwanath knew the water crisis well. He was an expert on water conservation in the context of urban planning; his firm had designed hundreds of real-estate developments with an eye toward water management.

Vishwanath had an idea that he believed could solve half of the water crisis. Less than 3% of rainwater is currently being harvested throughout the city, according to Vishwanath. He proposed connecting well diggers with the middle and upper classes, who can afford to install wells — which serve as holding tanks for rainwater diverted from rooftops and help recharge the groundwater.

“The well diggers live outside of town and are much poorer,” Lopez says. “The upper and middle class don’t interact very much with them.”

Going door-to-door again, the students learned that middle- and upper-class homeowners were interested in having wells installed. And the team traveled to the outskirts of the city to talk to well diggers.

“We asked how a website could help them, whether they’d be able to access the website on their smartphones, and how they would like to be contacted with possible job offers,” Lopez says.

Working 10-hour days, the students launched the Well Connected website — a way for homeowners to book appointments with local well diggers.

“A huge success is how I would describe it,” Vishwanath says. “They put their heart and soul into the issue.”

Residents of Devanahalli line up at a small water station to buy clean drinking water, which is purified with a reverse osmosis filter.

A stream of empowerment

Carefully folding her bright yellow kurta — a type of traditional Indian tunic — and tucking it into her luggage, Lopez felt empowered. In just 10 weeks, she had gained hands-on experience helping to address a critical issue. In the process, she’d learned how to fail and start again, as well as the importance of empathy and cultural awareness.

“We really had to get to know the local people so we could find solutions that would fit their needs,” Lopez says. “This process forced us to empathize deeply.”

Accepted into the Peace Corps, Lopez will head abroad again in the coming months — this time to Peru, where she’ll work as a water, sanitation and hygiene facilitator.

“At home, I now feel equipped to solve problems,” Lopez says. “And although GCIL was exhausting in every way, I absolutely loved it.”

Engineering grand challenges

Grand challenges are complex, global-scale problems defined by a variety of institutions and organizations, including the National Academy of Engineering, which has identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering ranging from food security to renewable energy to climate change.

A cohort of 17 students participating in GCIL in winter 2019 collectively tackled four different projects. Click to read about the other projects the student teams worked on in Bangalore.

Helping waste pickers become entrepreneurs

Working with Hasiru Dala, a social-impact organization, a team of four UW students collaborated on a pilot program to help waste pickers salvage clothing items from the dry waste they collected — accessing a valuable source of revenue that had gone untapped because the clothes were often contaminated by the waste. The students helped teach waste pickers how to educate people about donating clothes separately and how to identify clothes that can be resold for a profit, and they helped organize monthly clothing drives.

Critical-thinking skills and career options for young people

A team of five UW students worked with the Association for Promoting Social Action — a community-development organization focused on children’s rights — to find ways to help elementary-school students be more engaged in their learning and develop the critical-thinking skills needed for advanced education and a career. The team piloted a mobile-learning center with activities to help students develop critical-thinking skills and expose them to a variety of future career options.

Sustainable, safer low-income housing

The SELCO Foundation works to improve Bangalore’s low-income housing and living conditions. It aims to help reduce the use of concrete, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and design and build cheaper, safer, more energy-efficient homes using eco-friendly materials. But builders and communities are often reluctant to trust and use new building methods — leading to construction delays, strained relationships and added expense. A team of four UW students collaborated with SELCO to pilot a sustainable-construction consulting firm, helping bridge the gap between housing-focused NGOs and their customers through community outreach and education.

Originally published November 2019

What you care about can change the world

The University of Washington is undertaking its most ambitious campaign ever: Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World. By supporting students like Cristina Lopez who desire to make a difference, you can be part of the solution to our world’s grand challenges.