Patrick Sheppard, ‘13

Environmental Engineering, International Studies

WaSHUp: Innovating Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Upgrading in Langrug. The current top-down, subsidized, government approach to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) provision in South Africa has not been successful. The goal of this project was to establish a framework for the development of innovative, multi-stakeholder, multipurpose, and community-driven WaSH alternatives in Langrug, an informal settlement in the Stellenbosch municipality. In collaboration with local coresearchers, government, and NGO partners, we developed a process for incremental upgrading, constructed an innovative tap, implemented paintings to foster early childhood development in an ablution block, and proposed designs for a future multipurpose sanitation facility. The work created a starting point for Langrug to become a center for global learning and research in WaSH provision.

Why I chose this project:
I chose this project for several reasons. First, I knew that it would force me out of my comfort zone. A South African slum is unlike any place I have seen in the United States. I was able to work in this slum alongside people who had lived there for their entire lives. Second, I wanted to help tackle a major global issue. Inadequate sanitation affects billions worldwide, and I knew this project would allow me to help change this. Third, I wanted to experience something that I likely would never have the opportunity to do again. Living and working in South Africa for two months is such an experience.

What I learned from my IQP:
I learned that, for many problems, a technical solution is not adequate. In South Africa, we spent nearly all our time addressing the social issues surrounding water and sanitation provision. We also learned that many great technologies fail because those who implement them did not properly involve the community they were trying to help. Behavior is often harder to change than a toilet design. This lesson can be applied to many important global issues that scientists and engineers will face in the future.

I also learned to appreciate how lucky I am. Working in the informal settlement, I saw extreme poverty. Every day, people deal with inadequate housing, food insecurity, substandard education, unemployment, and many more issues. Escaping this environment is challenging and many people do not succeed. Seeing this helped me to appreciate the opportunities I have been granted and encouraged me to use these opportunities to make the world a better place.

Lastly, I learned how to get things done. At first, this actually felt strange. I had been used to working for grades, not concrete outcomes. If I receive a bad grade on a test, it ultimately will have very little impact on anyone’s life. In South Africa, however, this was not the case–the quality of my work would have an impact on people’s lives. Because of this, making a mistake terrified me. In the end, I learned to move past this fear, a lesson that will help me in the future.

How I have benefitted from my IQP as a person and a student:
I benefited in many ways from my IQP, both as a person and as a student. As a person, I learned a lot about myself, and I grew more confident in my ability to make change. I also gained many amazing friends and an experience that I will be able to talk about for the rest of my life. As a student, I learned how to work on an open-ended, self-steered project. I also learned how to better communicate my ideas to other people.

How this experience made me stronger in my field:
This project has made me stronger in my field in several ways. First, it has taught me how to better accomplish goals, communicate ideas, and work in a team. Second, it has given me experience working in a culture entirely different from my own, something that I will likely be called to do in the future in an increasingly globalized world. Third, it has set me apart from other students. It was because of this project that I was accepted as an undergraduate research fellow at Clark University this summer.

What I accomplished:
As noted earlier, my project had several concrete outcomes; however, the most impactful result of our project was community empowerment. While in South Africa, we worked with three coresearchers: Alfred, Nyameka, and Siyanda. They helped us throughout the entire project, and we learned a lot from each other. Even though we have now left South Africa, these coresearchers are continuing the project. Because of this, more will be accomplished than we could ever have done in two months, and this work will be sustainable because it is community driven.

Additional comments about the project system in general at WPI:
At most other schools, you would not have the opportunity to do what I did on my IQP. In most study abroad programs, you just take classes at an international university and, often, you stay stuck in an American bubble. However, at WPI, you are out doing projects, working with locals, and experiencing different cultures in a way that is totally unique. I got to see a world completely different from the U.S. The poverty was extreme, and the problems were so real. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it is an opportunity that over 50 percent of WPI students take advantage of in Project Centers all over the world.

For my Major Qualifying Project, I will be going to another one of these Project Centers, in Shanghai, China. I will be doing research in environmental engineering with professors and graduate students at a Chinese university. I do not know of many other schools where developing alternative sanitation systems in a South African slum and conducting international research at a Chinese university so easily fit in with an undergraduate curriculum.

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