Archive for November, 2017

ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, explains how service learning develops a social consciousness critical to developing appropriate engineering designs.

Kristina Macro representing ESF in service learning.

As a member of the SUNY-ESF chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and Engineering for a Sustainable Society (ESS) throughout my undergraduate years at ESF, I saw firsthand the impact that service learning experiences can have both on the communities served and on engineering student volunteers. Personally, I participated in service learning projects at all stages of the engineering process, from assessing and analyzing design alternatives to implementing a final design. These projects have taken me from homes in Syracuse to the village of Las Majadas, Guatemala. Along the way, I learned how the NAE Grand Challenges of providing access to clean water and restoring and improving urban infrastructure can be achieved through a combination of sustainable designs and sustainable partnerships.

Palajunoj Valley, south of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and site of the EWB sanitation project at the Las Majadas primary school.

Working on composting latrine and water supply projects for the village of Las Majadas with the Syracuse Professionals chapter of EWB enabled me to address these grand challenges. In May 2016, I traveled to Las Majadas with the professionals to begin the implementation phase for their composting latrine project at an elementary school and to start assessing rainwater catchment as an additional water source for the village.

Kristina Macro with future leaders of Las Majadas, Guatemala.

When we arrived at the village, we were welcomed by the support of community leaders, EWB representatives, a local NGO called Primeros Pasos, a Peace Corps volunteer, and community members of all ages. After meeting together to explain our goals for the project and answer their concerns, we got to work. With our shovels and mediocre Spanish, we worked side by side with both men and women from the community who had volunteered their own time and tools to the project. EWB requires that communities provide a portion of the labor and/or finances for projects, which is critical for project success. It ensures that the community will feel responsible for the project and that designs will be implemented using local knowledge.

EWB Members in Las Majadas, Guatemala.

While we had gone through the design process, knew the materials we needed, and had the building drawings ready to go, we were still engineers and students, not experts on construction in developing countries. With the help of the community volunteers, we learned how to bend rebar properly, set up a water level appropriate for the site, and acquire the right tools for the project. We really could not have completed the project without them.

Doing service learning through EWB and ESS has taught me that the NAE grand challenges won’t be solved unless people of different backgrounds are working together and contributing their unique expertise/skills. An appropriate technology design may be innovative, but it may never come to fruition without community partnerships that will last for years after the design is implemented. Service learning was a critical part of my engineering education and my personal growth during my undergraduate years, and I plan to continue to volunteer my time to projects and programs that are committed to solving the NAE grand challenges and related issues.


ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, explains how a global perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.

Clean water is something that we tend to take for granted in the United States, so to truly understand how to engineer solutions for the grand challenge of providing access to clean water, it is necessary to gain a global perspective. Crumbling urban infrastructure is another issue that can be seen closer to home, but this grand challenge also needs to be addressed in areas of the world that have not yet developed modern urban infrastructure. After traveling in 2015 to Costa Rica with the ESF Ecological Engineering in the Tropics, ERE 311 course, I learned how a global perspective can change the way you approach solving these problems.

Kristina Macro, 2nd from left, learning about cloud forests in Costa Rica.

The goal of the Ecological Engineering in the Tropics course is to teach how ecological engineering, designing with nature, can be used as a tool in sustainable development. We traveled around the country to see different ecosystems and to visit Rancho Mastatal, an ecological education center. There we learned about permaculture practices, sustainable designs such as solar heated showers and composting latrines, agroforestry, and issues in Costa Rica that could be addressed through ecological engineering designs.

Kristina Macro helping build an infiltration trench and settling basin as part of a stormwater management plan for Rancho Mastatal.

Many issues in Costa Rica stem from agricultural practices that create monocultures of crops such as banana and pineapples that reduce biodiversity, degrade soil quality, and introduce chemical pollutants into streams (Cornwell 2014). These issues can be addressed by using agroforestry management practices that provide habitat connectivity and recycle nutrients back into the system. At Rancho Mastatal, we learned how these practices are implemented and the challenges associated with them.

Water supply and sanitation is another major concern in Costa Rica. In addition to pollution from agricultural chemicals, streams have been polluted by untreated sewage and sediment from unprotected forests (Bower 2014). Bower states that only 3% of sewage is treated before it is released into the environment, resulting on more money being spent on the treatment of water-borne diseases than on water supply and treatment in Costa Rica. Ensuring proper wastewater treatment practices are in place is a critical step in providing sustainable access to clean water. This problem can be addressed through typical grey infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants, but ecological engineering solutions such as wastewater treatment wetland systems and composting latrines provide the opportunity to prevent pollution in a more sustainable way. In addition, in developing countries like Costa Rica, it may be more appropriate to implement wastewater treatment wetlands than build treatment facilities in some communities. Composting latrines are an even more decentralized approach that can be applied at an individual residence or community center scale.

Kristina with her student colleagues after the presentation of their ecological engineering design.

Implementing these ecological engineering solutions in developing countries helps communities develop sustainably, but can also give engineers the global perspective they need to implement these nature-based technologies in the United States. While our country may not have as many cases of water-borne illnesses, it still has polluted waters, combined sewer overflows, contaminants of emerging concern, and high energy consumption rates at wastewater treatment facilities. These issues can be solved through ecological engineering. Implementing treatment wetlands and composting latrines can help the United States address the challenges of providing access to clean water and improving urban infrastructure in a more sustainable way. The NAE grand challenges need to be approached with a global perspective because the solutions should have a positive global impact.

Cornwell, E. September 2014. Effects of different agricultural systems on soil quality in Northern Limon province, Costa Rica. Revista De Biologia Tropical, 62(3), 887-897
Bower, K. M. January 2014, Water supply and sanitation in Costa Rica. Environmental Earth Sciences, 71(1), 107-123

ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, presents the Gateway to Rethinking Organic Waste (GROW) business plan. Kristina’s GROW design team included Grace Belisle, Mark Tepper, Denali Trimble, and Julia Woznicki.

Many people in the world do not see food waste as a valuable resource. Even those that want to keep food waste from landfills do not compost their food waste because they find the process inconvenient, time consuming, and/or unpleasant. GROW, the Gateway to Rethinking Organic Waste, is a personal compost container that exceeds the capabilities of those on the market by widening the scope of usage and functionality. The GROW kit, shaped as a hexagon, takes food waste and creates a raised garden bed. The kit includes compost starter and seeds.

Learn more about GROW with this business plan and engaging video!

ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, explains how sustainable engineering design requires a systems perspective, where fields such as economics, ecology, and sociology inform engineering.

The drinkable book, which is a novel concept for providing potable water.

To address the grand challenge of providing access to clean water, it is critical to understand the economic, environmental, and social impacts that a new technology or system will have both in the short and long term. An exciting new technology that addresses this challenge is the Drinkable Book. This product uses silver nanoparticles embedded in filter paper to kill bacteria and make water safe to drink in areas that do not have access to potable water.

Each page of the drinkable book is a filter to clean many pollutants from water.

The filter paper was developed by Dr. Theresa Dankovich, and with the help of a design team, it was made into a book that also includes educational information about water-borne diseases and how to keep water clean. To use the book, one simply tears out a page, slides it into the slot on the filter box that comes with it, and pours water through it. The amount of time it takes for the water to filter through depends on the turbidity of the water (Nodjimbadem 2015). Each filter can clean about 26 gallons of water, so the entire 25-page book would last four years for one person.

When water is poured through the paper, 99.9 percent of harmful bacteria such as cholera, E. coli, and typhoid are killed (Berkowitz 2015). The bacteria are inactivated by silver ions during the percolation process, so they are not just removed by filtration. The silver loss from the filter paper is minimal, with levels under 0.1 ppm, the US EPA limit for silver in drinking water (Dankovich & Gray 2011). These results show that the silver embedded filter paper could be an effective appropriate technology for emergency water treatment. The book meets the objectives for emergency treatment systems to be cost effective, highly portable, nontoxic, easy to use and distribute, and have a low energy input.

Field testing of the drinkable book filter paper.

Field testing of the filter paper has been done in South Africa, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, and Bangladesh in partnership with the organizations WATERisLIFE and iDE-Bangladesh (Levine 2016). These studies have shown that the paper works as a filter for water in many different regions of the world, with one case showing that the paper was able to reduce bacteria levels in dilute raw sewage to levels comparable to U.S. tap water. The field testing team worked with community members to address their concerns and opinions about the design. This will help them ensure that the final design is accepted by the communities. As a result of working with the communities, they are working on a simple design for filter paper holders that will be easy for community members to use.

This technology has been seen as a solution that could help reduce the number of cases of water-borne diseases and increase access to potable water all over the world. However, it is important to understand what economic, environmental, and social impacts the Drinkable Book may have before it is implemented at a large scale.

From an economic perspective, the Drinkable Book’s low cost makes widespread distribution feasible. However, the nature of the book’s production and materials creates a dependency of the communities served on the pAge Drinking Paper organization created by Dankovich and other non-profits. The books would most likely be given to communities as donations, which although helpful in short term and emergency situations, could become detrimental to the communities in the future (Prough 2015). Considering a moral obligation to help people in need and the risk of perpetuating the cycle of dependency on wealthier countries is an ethical dilemma that needs to be explored for any engineering project that affects communities in developing countries.

The filter paper in the Drinkable Book may have negative environmental impacts. The silver nanoparticles in the filter paper could pose a threat to ecosystems if they are released into the environment (Prough 2015). Even though levels of silver loss were minimal in lab experiments, the amount of loss may change over time as the paper is used more and breaks down. The filter paper is designed to be thrown away once it is no longer effective, so there could be issues with the proper disposal of the filter papers. The book could be more sustainable than other energy intensive treatment processes, but a life cycle analysis of the book and its filter papers would need to be done to fully assess its environmental impact.

Providing clean water for communities that did not have access to potable water previously would most likely have positive social impacts. Less people will suffer and die from water-borne diseases, and community members wouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from drinking water. However, as previously mentioned, a sense of dependency may have a negative social impact.

Although there are many concerns regarding its economic, environmental, and social impacts, the Drinkable Book has the potential to provide access to clean water for people all over the world. These concerns must be addressed in future studies while applying a systems perspective to the design process. Approaching the design from a systems perspective will make it possible to solve the grand challenge of providing access to clean water in a sustainable way that will have a positive impact on the communities it serves.

Berkowitz, K. (2015). Living by the book: chemist Theresa Dankovich’s filters could save millions of lives. Human Ecology, (1), 41.
Dankovich, T. A., & Gray, D. G. (2011). Bactericidal paper impregnated with silver nanoparticles for point-of-use water treatment. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(5), 1992-1998. doi:10.1021/es103302t
Levine, J. 2016. pAge Papers: Pilot scale tests of Drinkable Book. Indiegogo. Retrieved from:
Nodjimbadem, K. August 16, 2015. Could This ‘Drinkable Book’ Provide Clean Water to the Developing World?. Retrieved from:

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Research conducted with Dr. Aldo R. Pinon-Villarreal and Dr. A. Salim Bawazir as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, convened at New Mexico State. This NSF REU supported the Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure program. The research was titled, “Stem water potential in desert willow grown in clinoptilolite zeolite and in-situ riparian soil”. The abstract follows:

Reestablishing native vegetation in riparian areas of southwestern United States is difficult because of the reduction of natural floods by channelization practices, timing of rainfall, and competition against saltcedar. A previous study demonstrated that clinoptilolite zeolite (CZ) could be used as a wicking material to raise sufficient moisture from shallow groundwater (< 3 m deep) to sustain plant establishment and growth. However, no studies have explored the effects that CZ has on water stress in established vegetation. This study evaluated the stem water potential (ψstem) of desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) grown in CZ cores or unamended in-situ riparian soil (RS) as part of a riparian zone rehabilitation study in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Root zone volumetric moisture content (θv), plant ψstem, and leaf chlorophyll content (LCC) for three to four randomly selected specimens in each substrate treatment within different DGW zones were undertaken from June 7 to July 7, 2016. Results from the study showed that the CZ treatment in Zone 2 under a deeper DGW of 2 m had significantly lower ψstem than the RS treatment (p = 0.002 – 0.06). However no differences in treatment ψstem averages were found in Zone 1 under a shallower DGW of 1.4 m (p = 0.90 – 0.95). Root zone θv was negatively correlated with ψstem, but this relationship was weaker for CZ treatments. Most treatment θv and LCC averages decreased while ψstem increased over the course of the study. This was related to low precipitation and the consistent increase in mean temperatures, with daily maxima reaching as high as 41°C and during the study period. These results can be used to determine the appropriate groundwater conditions where CZ could be used in future urban riparian restoration projects.

Kristina’s full study can be accessed online.


Figure 1. Map of the Sunland Park Test Bed riparian rehabilitation area showing planting zones for five native plant species and groundwater piezometers.

Figure 2. Map of desert willows grown in riparian soil (RS) and clinoptilolite zeolite (CZ) cores at the Sunland Park Test Bed

Figure 5. Stem water potential vs. volumetric moisture content for both depth to groundwater zones

Humanitarian Engineering for Development Workers ERE 496 Matthew Montanaro discusses solutions to help reach Millennium Development Goals 4, 5 and 6.

The article “Humanitarian drones to deliver medical supplies to roadless areas” released by the Guardian on March 30, 2014 explains the idea of using drones to carry up to 2 kg of life saving packages to areas that are unreachable by road. This would be especially useful in places like sub-Saharan Africa were 85% of roads are not usable during the wet season. The people living in this area are cut off from the ability to get medical supplies during this season. The facts in this article seem correct but there aren’t really much of them. They can improve the facts by just including more information about the areas this would be used in. A very small amount of information is given and this can be misleading. The project is estimated to cost 6,000 pound for each UAV and 3,000 pound for each ground system. Right now I feel that the cost for the system is too high for it’s gains. Each drone would only be able to fly 10 miles at a time so in order to cover a lot of ground a lot of drones and ground stations would have to be created. Infrastructure may not even be in place to charge these drones in the villages that need them. In the future this kind of technology could be valuable for the communities but right now there are better uses of money to help undeveloped communities rather than getting drones. The required labor wouldn’t be difficult for communities because once the system is in place there isn’t much that would have to be done to maintain it. The most important thing would be tp see if communities have the utilities available to power the drones and if this is worth the use of the power. For undeveloped communities this technology would not be culturally appropriate. People would probably not adapt to using the system very quickly and it doesn’t really make sense to have a drone when improved bathrooms and water supplies are still needed. The design of the project requires a ground station every 10 miles and would ultimately have villages sending and trading supplies between themselves. I think that the design would be more realistic if the drones could carry a heavier payload and fly longer distances but in life and death situations this system could definitely save lives because of the accuracy and quickness of delivering medicine.

This system would be able to help combat diseases, child mortality and maternal health due to the swift delivery of medicines and vital supplies. There are many of areas in developing and undeveloped countries where during the rainy season roads are inaccessible. Just because the roads can’t be traveled doesn’t mean that diseases and sicknesses will take a break. A system like this could ensure that people in all areas can get the treatment that they need for any kind of illness or disease. This article shows how much of a burden caring for a relative with AIDS is for that persons relatives It hurts the family economically, physically and emotionally. With the use of the proposed system, correct medicine would be able to be provided for diseases like AID’s without family members having to travel to go get it.

A more simple solution that could work instead of this complicated system could be a more developed distribution of medicine during the dry season. Communities could be  given stocks of medicine for diseases and sicknesses prevalent in the area so when someone does fall ill they will already have the supplies to fight it. With the prices being spent on the drones and the ground stations a lot more medicine could be purchased and kept in the communities. This would overall cost less because although they are buying more medicine they do not have to pay for the medicine on top of paying for the drones. This would cause more planning and spending in the dry season to make sure they are prepared for the wet season and somebody in the village must travel to whichever closest place has the medicine available. This would definitely fit the cultures of developing communities much better. The most important part of this design would be to have effective planning before the wet season.



Inventor (left) with a sample drone (right)

Inventor (left) with a sample drone (right)

Gilson, Lucy, and Anne Mills. “Health Sector Reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons of the Last 10       Years.” Health Policy 32.1-3 (1995): 215-43. Web.

Goodman, Catherine, et al. “Medicine Sellers and Malaria Treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa: What Do They Do and How Can Their Practice Be Improved?” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 32.6 (2007): 203-18. Web.

Hickey, Shane. “Humanitarian Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies to Roadless Areas.” The Guardian.    Guardian News and Media, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.



Humanitarian Engineering for Development Workers ERE 496 student Kellie Floyd discusses solutions to help reach Millennium Development Goals 3, 6, and 7:

The article “Effectiveness of Improved Cookstoves to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution in Developing Countries. The Case of the Cassamance Natural Subregion, Western Africa”, written by six authors from the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering of the Technical University of Madrid (UPM), in October 2013, was published in the Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection and online on SciRes in January 2014. The article presents the case study completed by UPM on a sample of households that received improved cookstoves in 2012-2013, to see what effect the improvement has had on indoor air quality. The cookstoves were installed by Alianza por la Solidaridad, a Spanish NGO, in 3000 households in the Cassamance Natural Subregion—part of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The study consisted of measuring carbon monoxide (CO) and fine particle matter (PM2.5) concentrations, before and after the installations.  The cookstoves were Noflaye Jeeg and Noflaye Jaboot types; they are locally produced, but basically versions of the Rocket Stove (Figure 1 below). Both of these were installed in each household. They do not have chimneys. The main goals of the installations were to reduce fuelwood consumption, the required collection time, and indoor air pollution (Borge et al. 2013).

The study to determine how effective these installations were consisted of three main parts—monitoring before and after pollutant concentrations, household questionnaires (both of women and head of household), and collecting physical information such as kitchen shape, size, amount of windows/doors, etc. This information was combined to evaluate the improved stoves. Four graphs, shown below, depict the results of the study (Borge et al. 2013).

From these graphs, it is easy to see that after the improvements, there was a lowering of both CO and PM2.5 concentrations; however, some areas show a much better improvement than others. This variation by location is explained in the study as being caused by differences in ventilation and household size (affecting consumption). In some areas, such as Guinea-Bissau, the results were not clear enough to really be able to say that the installations improved indoor air quality, since the before and after levels are so close. The 24-hr mean CO concentrations were still higher than the WHO guidelines in Senegal and Gambia after installing the stoves, and the 24-hour mean for PM2.5 concentrations were higher than guidelines as well, in all areas. Although there were significant reductions in some areas, the variability by location and the fact that the improvements were not enough to make it under the guidelines suggests that these stoves are not adequate (Borge et al. 2013).

This report uses data from the World Health Organization and International Energy Agency, was completed by appropriate, qualified people, and completely depicts and explains both the methods used and results. I would say, therefore, that the report is very accurate and trustworthy. The report itself evaluates the level of improvement and concludes that although there was improvement seen, it was not enough to reach guidelines and be effective in addressing the MDGs. The variability among locations clearly influenced the results, and perhaps suggests that a solution that was more specific for each case would have been more appropriate, rather than this “one-size-fits-all” type of solution for the entire region. The areas where not as much improvement was seen probably could have benefitted more from a different option.  As far as design, maintenance, required labor, and cost, the NGO installed and funded these stoves, and they are very simple in design and would not require much maintenance. So in that regard, the stoves were very appropriate. I would say that maybe the NGO went too far in trying to keep the solution appropriate, so that not as much of an improvement was actually seen.

The International Energy Agency reports that 40% of the global population relies on the traditional use of biomass for cooking—simple, inefficient technology such as the three-stone fire (IEA, 2010). Inefficient conditions result in pollution, including: carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and organic compounds. Indoor air pollution is a major cause of negative health effects, being the second leading cause of death in developing countries. It is predicted that it will become the first leading cause by 2030 (IEA, 2010).  The World Health Organization has conducted many studies and linked the exposure to indoor air pollution and health effects; pneumonia, infection of the lower respiratory track, burns, eye diseases, and other lung-related diseases are some of the potential health effects. In many households in developing regions such as this region, pollutant levels can be 10-50 times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2006). From this class, we have learned the importance of improving indoor air quality to improve health, efficient resource use, and decrease pollution. Improvements to indoor air quality can address the MDGs of promoting gender equality and empowering women (3), combat diseases (6), and ensure environmental sustainability (7). Women are usually the ones to cook in developing regions, and thus they are more exposed to the pollution and more likely to have the negative health effects. Improvements not only can improve their health, but also reduce the time and energy they must spend cooking, and thus give them opportunity to do something else to generate income or improve their lives (Fry et al.  2009). The improved stoves used in this case work to address these goals, and since at least some improvements were seen in pollution levels, we can generally say that the stoves installation contributed to reducing the negative health effects associated with indoor air pollution. The study did not evaluate, or at least did not report on, whether any improvements in terms of gender empowerment were seen.

We have discussed alternative stove improvements, such as the Loretta stove and Loretta-Rocket combination. The article specifically mentions that chimneys were not included, and this assisted in causing variation in results by location, because some households naturally had better ventilation than others. Thus, in order to not waste money and keep the improvements already made for all of these households, chimneys could simply be added. This would help unify the results and decrease pollution levels further, hopefully enough to make it below WHO guidelines.

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Work Cited

1. Sota, Candela De La, Julio Lumbreras, Javier Mazorra, Adolfo Narros, Luz Fernandez, and Rafael Borge. “Effectiveness of Improved Cookstoves to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution in Developing Countries. The Case of the Cassamance Natural Subregion, Western Africa.” Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection 5th ser. 2.1 (2014): n. pag. SciRes. Web. 27 Apr. 214. <;.