Category: NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program

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