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D-Lab and MIT IDEAS Global Challenge: Lessons in Mentoring, Transdisciplinarity and Real World Engineering for Sustainable Development

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This paper reflects on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab and IDEAS Global Challenge pedagogy over the past 14 years (2002–2015). The MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, a program of the MIT Public Service Center, is an annual invention and entrepreneurship competition that awards up to $10,000 per MIT team for innovations and service projects that positively impact underserved communities. IDEAS student teams work with a community partner on projects that are designed to improve the quality of life globally. Since its founding in 2002, IDEAS has awarded more than $600,000 to 132 teams. D-Lab Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Environmental Innovations for the Common Good (D-Lab WASH + ENV) is a MIT course offered for the past 10 years within a curriculum of over 20 D-Lab classes in international development. This author has mentored several hundred student teams that have entered the IDEAS Global Challenge, mostly through this course D-Lab WASH + ENV, including 26 winning teams. Eighty-one percent of these IDEAS winning teams have been led by women students. This is a model of the kind of program that can bring gender parity to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines while nurturing the “whole student.” In common with the wider family of D-Lab courses, the D-Lab-WASH + ENV course is structured around experiential learning and real-world engineering. This paper links the Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) conference themes with the D-Lab/IDEAS pedagogy in terms of key concepts: mentoring, transdisciplinarity and real world engineering. It ends with challenges and recommendations.


  • Mentoring
  • Transdisciplinary
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Real world engineering
  • STEM disciplines
  • Experiential learning
  • New pedagogy
  • Gender
  • Gender parity

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  1. 1.

    The Gender Parity Index (GPI) is a socioeconomic index usually designed to measure the relative access to education of males and females. In its simplest form, it is calculated as the quotient of the number of females by the number of males enrolled in a given stage of education (primary, secondary, etc.). It is used by international organizations, particularly in measuring the progress of developing countries. The Institute for Statistics of UNESCO also uses a more general definition of GPI: for any development indicator one can define the GPI relative to this indicator by dividing its value for females by its value for males. For example, some UNESCO documents consider gender parity in literacy.


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The author would like to acknowledge the D-Lab and IDEAS Global Challenge instructors, staff and students who have contributed to making these programs such a dynamic, joyful, egalitarian and supportive learning environment, and without whom the successes described here would not have been possible.

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Correspondence to Susan Murcott .

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Appendix 1

MIT Award-Winning Student Teams Advised by Susan Murcott. More info on specific IDEAS teams is available on the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge Website:

The table below lists the 31 winning teams (26 IDEAS teams plus 5 other team awards), along with the project location, the type and amount of the award, the team leader, D-Lab-WASH class participants and/or other students on that team.

Year Team name Project location Competitiona award Team leaders, D-Lab-WASH class participants and/or team members
2015 Change: WATER Jordon $10,000 IDEAS Award Grace Connors, Jessie Press-Williams, Diana Yousef
2014 Clean water clean data Ghana, Guatemala $7500 IDEAS Award David Taylor, Natasha Wright, Marcelo Giovanni
2014 My H2O Team PR China $1500 IDEAS Community Choice Award. $39,000 National Geographic Air and Water Quality Fund Award (2014) Xiaoyuan “Charlene” Ren
2014 Ways2Clean Bangladesh $3000 IDEAS Award Tamanna Islam Urmi
2013 Spouts of water Uganda >$50,000 from competitions, grants and fund-raisers Seul (Kathy) Ku, Suvai Gunasekaran, Hannarae Nam
2013 Hope in flight Ghana $7500 IDEAS Award Coyin Oh and Yiping Xing
2012 OpenIR Indonesia $7500 IDEAS Award Arlene Ducao, Juhee Bae, Ilias Koen, Abdulaziz Alghunaim
2012 wecyclers Nigeria $7500 IDEAS Award Bilikiss Olatoyosi, Alex Fallon, M. Hickman, Emily Boggs
2011 AQUA Tanzania $5000 IDEAS Community Choice Award Peter Kang and Junyun Song
2011 Kosim water keg Ghana, Guatemala $10,000 Global Challenge Award Joanna Cummings, Chris Schulz
2011 SafeWaterWorld Chile $7500 IDEAS Award Samantha O’Keefe
2010 The grease project Brazil $3000 IDEAS Award Ana Bonomi
2010 My city, my future (ArteRio) Brazil $3000 IDEAS Award Kate Balug & Alix Beranger
2010 PieceMeal vendors Thailand $1000 Community Choice Award Kim Liao
2009 Global cycle solutions Tanzania $30,000 $100K Award Emerging Markets Track Jodie Wu
2009 Global citizen water initiative Tibet $5000 IDEAS Award Scott Frank
2007 New DOTS Nicaragua, India $5000 IDEAS Award Angela Kirby, Jeff Blander, Elizabeth Gillenwater, Jose Gomez-Marquez, Minyoun Jang, Aron Walker
2007 Vac-cast prosthetics Cambodia $7500 IDEAS Competition Tess Veuthey
2006 CentroMigrante Philippines 1st Prize. MIT $100K Sloan Entrepreneurship Competition—Dev. Entrepreneurship Track Illac Dias
2006 FirstStepCoral Philippines $7500 IDEAS Award Illac Dias
2006 Peanut revolution Philippines $5000 IDEAS Award Illac Dias
2006 Kounkuey design initiative Kenya $150,000 International Resource Award for Sustainable Watershed Management (2012) Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy
2006 Synergetic power systems Lesotho $225,000 (Only winning student team in this competition in 2006) Elizabeth Wayman, Amy Mueller, Matthew Orosz, Sorin Grama, Ignacio Aquirre, Perry Hung, Mark Wolf
2006 Synergetic power systems Lesotho $125K Ignite Clean Energy Business Competition Winner Elizabeth Wayman, Amy Mueller, Matthew Orosz, Sorin Grama, Ignacio Aquirre, Perry Hung, Mark Wolf
2005 Parabolic power II (former team name of synergetic power systems) Lesotho $2000 IDEAS International Technology Award Elizabeth Wayman, Amy Mueller, Matthew Orosz, Sorin Grama, Ignacio Aquirre, Perry Hung, Mark Wolf
2005 Solar water disinfection device Nepal $2000 IDEAS Award Deborah Xanat Flores.
2005 Mozambique environmental sanitation initiative Mozambique $3000 IDEAS Award Brian Robinson, Pragnya Alekai + 7 other teammates from DUSP
2004 TestWaterCheap Peru $5000 IDEAS Award Brittany Coulbert
2003 Lumbini water solutions Nepal $3000 IDEAS Award Melanie Pincus
2003 MIT UV tube project Nepal $2000 IDEAS International Technology Innovation Award Deborah Xanat Flores
2002 Dlo Prop—Water treatment project Haiti $1K Warm-up to the Sloan $50K business competition. Sustainable development category Luca Morganti
2002 Pure water for nicaragua Nicaragua $5000 IDEAS Award Rebecca Huang
2002 Innovative drinking water technology for bangladesh (KanchanTM arsenic filter) Nepal $5000 International Technology Innovation Award sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Program Tommy Ngai, Sophie Walewijk, Roshan Shrestha, Susan Murcott
  1. aCompetitions Entered:
  2. • IDEAS Global Challenge Competition (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015)
  3. • MIT $100K Competition (2006, 2009, 2013)
  4. • Lemelson International Technology Award (2002, 2003)
  5. • World Bank Development Marketplace Competition (2006)
  6. • Commonwealth of Mass—$125K Ignite Clean Energy Business Competition (2006)
  7. • International Resource for Sustainable Watershed Mgt Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd (2012)
  8. • National Geographic Air and Water Quality Fund Award (2014)

Appendix 2

Descriptions of Selected Award-Winning Student Teams Advised by Susan Murcott. More info on specific IDEAS teams is available on the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge Website:

Kanchan TM Arsenic Filter ($5000 in 2002): The Kanchan TM Arsenic Filter (KAF) was designed to address arsenic contamination of drinking water at the household scale in rural Nepal. About 350,000 people (35,000 households) in the Terai region of Nepal, where there is high arsenic contamination of groundwater, are exposed to an arsenic concentration above 50 ppb, the national drinking water standard for Nepal. KAFs have been implemented for about two-thirds of that population—about 250,000 people which translates to about 25,000 households In addition to winning one of the original IDEAS awards in 2002, the KAF team has been recognized for a number of other awards including: World Bank Development Marketplace Competition (2003); Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award—Environment Category (2005); St. Andrews Prize for the Environment—2nd Prize (2006); Kyoto Water Prize—Top Ten Finalists (2006). A $50K award from Dubai Expo Live in 2014 is enabling the KAF team to reach 20,000 new users in 20 schools in the Bardiya and Kailali districts of the Mid- and Far-Western Terai region in 2015.

Vac-Cast Prosthetics ($7500 in 2007): There are over 25,000 new amputees annually in India as a result of accidents and disease. Despite the availability of free prosthetics and fitting services through several NGOs, only half of these victims receive a prosthetic device that is specifically tailored to their residual limb. One factor for a patient to opt for treatment is whether they can devote the time necessary for the prosthetic fitting and fabrication process in an urban clinic. Conversely, patient throughput by these organizations is limited by the finite resources that they can allocate per patient for the lengthy treatment. Fortunately, there is a novel sand-casting (SC) fitting technique that could increase patient throughput by a factor of five. However, SC cannot be deployed everywhere because it requires a vacuum device that is costly and electricity-intensive. VacCast Prosthetics has developed a simple alternative to this machine that overcomes these limitations. Our technology is unique, easy-to-use, human-powered, costs under $200, is built using materials commonly found in a mechanics shop, uses no electricity, and can be integrated seamlessly with the other sand-casting treatment devices. The VacCast team has developed this device in collaboration with the Jaipur Foot Organization, the world leader in supplying prosthetic limbs and its affiliates to guarantee that our technology will meet the same needs as the electric vacuum machine. The follow-up to this invention and prize was that the team leader, Tess Veuthey, went on to win a Fulbright fellowship to bring this innovation to Cambodia, where there is a high number of amputees.

Hope In Flight ($7500 in 2013): According to a 2010 UN report, 80 % of the waste generated in northern Ghanaian villages and towns consists of organic waste—most of which are not properly collected or disposed in a safe and healthy manner. One of these villages is Taha, our target community of about 600 people. Such accumulation of waste promotes infectious diseases and the contamination of precious water supplies. Hope in Flight utilizes a low-tech optimizing system that exploits the natural capabilities of the Black Soldier Fly (BSF), a species native to Ghana and other areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, to efficiently process organic waste. BSF larva turns every kilogram of organic waste into 29 US cents worth of protein meal! The collected BSF pre-pupae can be processed into profitable, safe, and nutritious animal feed. Business Model Using a technology transfer, Hope in Flight has brought the specialized waste bioconversion systems to entrepreneurs at the University of Development Studies in northern Ghana. The entrepreneurs use the systems to produce protein-rich BSF meal from organic waste, and earn a steady income by selling their farmed product for further processing. Hope in Flight sells the BSF meal as high-quality animal feed to egg, poultry, and fish farmers.

My H 2 O ($1500 in 2014): MyH2O is one of the first online crowd-sourcing platforms on water contamination and water quality issues in China <>. Although the media in China has become increasingly open about China’s environmental problems, the public is still only presented with limited information on water quality. Inspired by the air quality (PM 2.5) campaigns on social media that stirred public reaction and led to greatly increased transparency for air quality information, MyH2O is one of the first online crowd-sourcing platforms on China’s water quality. Created in partnership with China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), MyH2O aims to promote water risk awareness, increase information transparency and motivate citizen solutions through independent reports of water quality. In addition to their 2014 IDEAS Competition Community Choice award, this team also won a National Geographic Air and Water Quality Fund Award of $39,000 in 2014.

Clean Water Clean Data ($10,000 in 2014): Clean Water-Clean Data’s product innovation is the “Smart Spout” that won a $10,000 IDEAS Competition award in 2014. The Smart Spout is a new spigot that can be placed on household water filters to record the frequency and duration of use. The data is read by a smart phone placed on the device. This product allows public health advocates to monitor how text message reminders reflect filter usage patterns. This innovation enables monitoring of consistent and continuous use and provides an objective measure of use, independent of reporting bias. The team intends to pilot their invention in 2015.

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Murcott, S. (2016). D-Lab and MIT IDEAS Global Challenge: Lessons in Mentoring, Transdisciplinarity and Real World Engineering for Sustainable Development. In: Leal Filho, W., Nesbit, S. (eds) New Developments in Engineering Education for Sustainable Development. World Sustainability Series. Springer, Cham.

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