Breaking the mold of your typical lecture-style classes is a problem-solving, hands-on course that immerses undergraduate students in the environmental health issues faced by underserved communities in low economic developing countries. Each spring, assistant professor Dr. Joe Brown leads a small undergraduate course through the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering called Environmental Technology in the Developing World. The course focuses primarily on problems that affect underserved communities that have a direct impact on health and sanitation, such as unsafe water and poor air quality.
For those who seek the opportunity to work in teams to address real world environmental problems and engage with international communities, there is no better course than this one. The course provides a unique, interdisciplinary project-based experience for undergraduates to address critical problems in environmental health. However, anyone who has taken the course will tell you that it is no easy ride. Between working closely with others in teams, the trial-and-error nature of applied problem solving, and trying to understand a different community and culture, challenging moments are inevitable. Yet, it is within these challenging moments that students are really given the opportunity to exercise leadership.
Last spring, the class split into two groups that focused on environmental health issues in Bolivia. One examined air quality and personal exposure to different types of air pollutants emitted by various forms of transportation, and the other studied the safety of drinking water and the accuracy of affordable water quality test kits. While there was no formal leadership development component built into the course, students often found themselves confronting situations that required them to step up to in order to move the project forward. Whether it was recognizing when to follow or taking the lead on unglamorous work such as spreadsheets, the organic way in which the students took responsibility when needed and exercised leadership without being directed was something that struck instructor Dr. Brown throughout the course.
In a recent interview, he recounted this observation, saying “One of things that impressed me about this class is that when there was something that needed to get done, there was always someone who stepped forward and said, ‘I will do that.’ Somehow everything gets done and there is a shared responsibility in completing the tasks and the projects.” He also notes, however, that the teams also went through “periods of crisis” where either a member wasn’t pulling his or her weight or the team was split on how they wanted to move forward. According to Dr. Brown, what was critical in enabling the teams to overcome these periods was keeping in mind the greater good of the project and the communities for which they were working.
Rebecca Yoo, a fourth-year Civil Engineering student, can attest to the leadership development that occurs throughout the course. Rebecca was enrolled in the course in Spring 2015 and joined the water quality group, which tested the accuracy of low-cost, easy to use water quality test kits in order to determine an affordable way for communities to ensure the safety of their drinking water. Part of the course included traveling to Bolivia to collect and test samples of water. Having to understand and work with different personalities, cultural backgrounds, and ways of communicating was both a challenging yet invaluable experience for Rebecca. Collaborating with group members under these conditions and developing a sense of when to step up or when to step down and let someone else take the lead was “a humbling way to learn to be a leader.”
This course is just one example of how leadership development is constantly occurring at Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech is an environment rich with leaders, and in every building, classroom, office, and lab, one will find passionate individuals working with other passionate individuals to positively impact the world around them.
To find out more about this course and its part in the Global Engineering track of the Minor in Leadership Studies, visit http://ce.gatech.edu/academics/undergraduate/leadership-minor.