Lehigh engineers offer an inspired look at sustainable development initiatives that work.

Practical solutions to real-world problems start with brilliant ideas. But to become successful and truly sustainable, those discoveries must be supported by teams of people who can address them from multiple angles, considering not only the science, but also social, cultural and economic factors. Such is the thinking behind Lehigh’s Sustainable Development Program, which enlists all four of Lehigh’s colleges in solving challenges faced throughout the world, especially in emerging economies.

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Sustainable Development may be a relatively new program at Lehigh—and one of the only of its kind in the country—but it’s a philosophy that has been alive at the university for more than a decade. Professors in all four colleges have engaged in international community service projects. Professor of civil and environmental engineering Kristen Jellison has been hard at work on ways to purify drinking water in third-world countries. Arup Sengupta, also a professor of civil and environmental engineering, has installed systems to remove arsenic and fluoride from drinking water throughout the world. (See video above.)

Under the guidance of professor of economics Todd Watkins, computer science and business students have updated a microfinance organization’s database in Zambia. And engineering professors Rick Weisman and Don Morris have let groups of students from all four colleges on trips to Costa Rica. In addition, Lehigh’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders has engaged students in numerous community service projects overseas.

Now, formally under the direction of professor of practice Mark Orrs, Lehigh’s Sustainable Development initiative has officially gone into high gear. Its main goal: to create field-based, international learning experiences that cross disciplines. Lehigh professors and students want to take their research projects beyond the lab and into developing countries, maximizing their solutions with a clear understanding of that country’s government, economy, and social structure.

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Since arriving at Lehigh in the Fall of 2012, Orrs has created two undergraduate courses, including Sustainable Development Solutions, a yearlong 200-level course in which teams of students from different majors and backgrounds connect with international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to solve real world problems.

Orrs believes Lehigh’s interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development is unique in the academic community. “Other schools have study abroad programs, but in terms of interdisciplinary, team-based, yearlong projects that focus on real international problems, our sustainable development program is unique.”