Water Reclamation Adjunct Takes a Front Seat in Social Entrepreneurship

A new adjunct course at Colorado College is breaking traditional classroom boundaries. Formally titled “Innovation for Poverty Alleviation: Water in the Tropics” and taught by Economics Professor Daniel Johnson, the class seeks first to understand water issues, then to design a plan to distribute a water reclamation system created by an Indian scientist.

The water reclamation system, designed by Dr. Senthil Kumar of Tamil Nadu, collects condensation from industrial air conditioning equipment to provide potable water for those without ready access.

Dr. Kumar approached Johnson at a conference about ideas to support the technology’s adoption, and Johnson took the steps to form the class. The class plans to explore cultural norms, environmental challenges, technological limitations, financing models, partnership strategies, and implementation hurdles before formulating final project proposals about how to enable innovation that genuinely benefits community members.

“Our goal is simply to bring students together around a challenging, real-world problem, to give them community and content around which to engage, and to help them bring their own intellect, creativity, and energy to bear on something that matters,” said Johnson.

This is not a hypothetical case; the group’s solutions may be used to deploy the innovation in India and elsewhere. Dr. Kumar will participate in the continuing conversation, and genuinely wants student input on how to proceed.

When Johnson decided to teach the class, he expected three to five students to be involved. To his surprise, 27 students of various majors expressed interest. The class gives .25 units of credit and formally meets once per week, although students are encouraged to get together and talk about steps to move forward as frequently as possible.

Each week, a presentation is offered to students by a content-matter expert. For example, this past Wednesday, Carlos Pineda, the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning Supervisor at CC, came in to talk about how air conditioning systems work and hypothetical situations of collecting condensation.

“I think the biggest problem you would run into in implementing condensation collection systems is the cooperation of a city and funding,” said Pineda. “It can take years to plan this type of thing and millions of dollars to get it going. The pay-off period is long.”

The Innovation Institute provided guidance and encouragement to get the course off the ground, and has some experience in similar programs. For example, they offered the Soup Kitchen Challenge as an extra-curricular opportunity two years ago, a challenge which had some similar elements.

Why this particular challenge? “It seemed to have potential to make a difference, while offering an unstructured learning opportunity for current CC students in which they might blend their education with problem-solving in a multidisciplinary environment,“ said Johnson.

The class has a flexible structure and is currently still tackling where to begin. Questions are being asked such as: should this be implemented somewhere in the U.S. first? Where would the students of this class be most helpful in implementation plans? Johnson is giving students the reins and is letting them decide the syllabus and curriculum.

“Knowing how to embrace ambiguity, how to lean into it with confidence in your own ability to learn and adapt and collaborate and create and fail and recover… that’s what I honestly hope to teach in this class,” he said.

The class welcomes ideas and insights about water reclamation social entrepreneurship. If interested in joining the project or sharing your strengths, email daniel.johnson@coloradocollege.edu.

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