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MIT Better World

Jules Walter taught villagers in Ghana to make charcoal from agricultural waste.


By Liz Karagianis

“The method is great,” he says, “because forests will no longer need to be cut down to make wood charcoal, and local entrepreneurs can use the know-how to set up small businesses.”

Walter is one of many MIT undergraduates who participate in D-Lab, an MIT class that teaches undergraduates how to deliver technology to the Third World. Students travel to Brazil, China, Ghana, India, Lesotho, or Zambia, where they help local villagers develop labor-saving technologies and invent new solutions to age-old problems.

The project was launched in 2002 by Amy Smith, an MIT mechanical engineer and inventor, who in 2004 won a MacArthur “genius” Award for designing simple and affordable solutions to fundamental problems that affect poor regions of the world.So far, the program has been a huge success. This year, the class was oversubscribed by more than 100 percent, and already there have been results in developing countries.

In one Zambian village, for example, students ran a training program in water safety and sanitation. They taught community leaders safe water practices so they could then teach others. Six months later, when they went back to the village, many of the water trainers were promoting safe water practices and there was a huge spike in the sale of chlorine. Also, in Guatemala, students built a second-generation prototype of a pedal-powered washing machine that has generated great community interest and shows much promise.

The best part of D-Lab, Walter says, is the fieldwork. “I’m not saying it’s better than learning from a book, but fieldwork and the classroom complement each other. In class, you solve problems that are abstract; in the field, you solve problems that are concrete. You need both experiences.”

Smith says that offering students a chance to travel to developing countries is “eye-opening. In many ways,” she says, “it’s a transformational experience. When they come back, they just say it made such a difference in the way they look at problems.”

Walter agrees. Born and raised in Haiti, he says: “When I lived in Haiti, I thought the poverty there was terrible, but that was just the way it is. Now, I think, yes, there’s poverty. But what is the solution?”