Ryan Chartrand

For students looking to find practical solutions to world problems, Cal Poly will begin a new series of multidisciplinary courses this winter. The three-course Poly D-Lab series will challenge students to come up with innovative technological and cultural solutions to problems facing impoverished communities in developing nations.

Cal Poly’s new D-Lab series is modeled after the highly praised D-Lab series of M.I.T. and will be taught in three consecutive courses, each “D” representing a different level of learning – development, design and dissemination.

“When you put yourself into a place where you have to think outside the box because you don’t have the money, the facilities, the cheap energy, the hardware you need to make a box, you’re forced to think with the creativity that when you return to your own country, it puts you at a great advantage,” said physics professor Pete Schwartz, one of the developers of the new class. “Once you start to think outside the box, you can’t stop.”

Beginning next quarter, D-Lab I will present an overview of current practices and political policies relating to international development and appropriate technology.

D-Lab II, starting spring quarter 2008, will be a hands-on course on design and construction of appropriate technologies for developing nations while D-Lab III will focus on economic and business development in those impoverished communities.

This winter’s D-Lab I, “UNIV X491: Appropriate Technology for Impoverished Communities,” still has spaces available for interested upper-level students from all majors.

Along with a rigorous academic schedule, field trips and workshops, students will work in teams to focus on real-world problems from developing nations. These group projects will be mentored by an interested faculty member or outside person and will address such issues as water purification in India, construction with earth bricks in Zimbabwe or solar cooking in Sudan.

Schwartz and industrial and manufacturing engineering professor Sema Alptekin are developing the course and will recruit Cal Poly political science, psychology and business professors as well as guest lecturers from M.I.T., UC Davis, the private sector and several NGOs to speak to the class.

Schwartz stressed that the new course series is geared at both technical and non-technical majors. “There is amazing opportunity in development, appropriate technology and renewable energy for efforts in a vast range of fields,” he said.

For engineering and science majors, he sees the added value of students learning how to design within the context of a developing community, where constraints such as cost, availability of materials and a harsh environment, must be factored in as well.

“In the developed world, one can improve a design without considering the larger context of production, use and disposal – the product life cycle. If one can improve the design, it will find its way to market,” he explained.

“But this is not usually the case in many other cultures. D-Lab will address the full picture of how the technology fits into the lives of the target communities. This holistic thinking is a direction that engineering education is beginning to value.”

Schwartz also hopes that non-technical students who are concerned with issues of development will add the D-Lab classes.

He pointed out that of the challenges facing development efforts, only a small portion are technically related, but there are many more “human questions” to be addressed. “Social, political, business … we need people with these skills in the field,” he said.

Schwartz and Alptekin are currently working to get D-Lab I qualified as a general education Area F fulfillment and D-Lab II as a technology elective. The three classes in the new series are not prerequisites for each other and Schwartz is working with the various colleges to help students get appropriate course credit for their major. He also hopes the class projects will continue on to initiate senior projects.

This winter’s D-Lab I will be taught Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:10 p.m. until 4 p.m. Students interested in adding need the class to have at least junior standing and be able to contribute advanced skills from their major.

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