Lehigh University logo
Lehigh University logo
Lehigh University logo

Achieving a Balance


When he enrolled at Lehigh in the fall of 2009, Dan Coviello set out to find outlets for his two passions: environmental sustainability and community service.

Four years later, as he completes a B.S. in environmental engineering, he has left his mark in places close to home and in the wider world.

Through Lehigh’s office of community service, Coviello completed a 10-day service project on the island nation of Antigua, where he helped renovate a hospice center and volunteered at a school for disadvantaged children.

Through Lehigh’s United Nations Partnership, Coviello spoke twice on volunteerism at the UN and also visited Germany. He returned to the UN a dozen more times to advocate for Tarumitra (“friends of Trees” in Hindi), an environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) in northeastern india for which he is a UN youth delegate.

Through Lehigh’s chapter of engineers Without Borders (EWB), a nonprofit that promotes sustainable engineering, Coviello has organized water-filtration design competitions for eighth-graders at Broughal Middle school next door to Lehigh. He has also helped draft a plan to educate residents of the town of Pueblo Nuevo, Honduras, regarding the use of a water supply and distribution system that EWB students helped build.

Coviello’s experiences are emblematic of the opportunities available to students through Lehigh’s new interdisciplinary program in sustainable development. The program, which has grown in large part out of the activities of Lehigh’s EWB chapter, enlists students in all of Lehigh’s colleges—engineering, arts and sciences, business and economics, and education—to solve development challenges throughout the world.

“Our goal,” says the program’s director, Mark Orrs, professor of practice in the political science department, “is to create field-based, international learning experiences that cross disciplines. We want to gain a better understanding of how new technology can work within the government and economy of a country and to ensure that solutions don’t stop at the lab.”

Historical precedents

Sustainable development projects have been an informal part of Lehigh’s curriculum for several decades. Arup Sengupta, professor of civil and environmental engineering and also of chemical engineering, has spent much of his career designing and installing systems that remove arsenic and fluoride from groundwater (see story on page 18).

Rick Weisman, also a professor of civil and environmental engineering, studies surface water hydrology in an effort to preserve water quality.

And since the late 1990s, Weisman and Don Morris, associate professor of earth and environmental science, have been leading groups of students to Costa Rica each year over winter break (see sidebar on opposite page).

In 2005, Kristen Jellison, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, traveled to Honduras to assess a water problem in Pueblo Nuevo. The town’s distribution system had been damaged by Hurricane Mitch seven years earlier and was unable to supply enough water to people living in the region.

After her trip, Jellison and a group of faculty and students established Lehigh’s EWB chapter (see sidebar, page 17). The chapter’s membership includes Jellison, orrs and Weisman, as well as dan Zeroka, an engineering technician, and Bruce Moon, professor emeritus of international relations.

The EWB chapter has taken on a second project in Honduras to supply clean drinking water to la fragosa, a town near pueblo nuevo. Meanwhile, Jellison and her students have started a large purification endeavor using biosand water filtration systems in Nicaragua.

Jellison has won nsf support for her work with Cryptosporidium parvum, a hardy waterborne parasite that causes gastrointestinal illness. Her work in Central America, she says, has deepened her appreciation for the host of factors that must be considered if a technological advancement is to succeed.

“Any type of solution that is going to be truly sustainable has to be supported by a team of people who can address technology problems, social and cultural issues, linguistic barriers, education, community involvement, politics and economic considerations.”

The vital financial component

In the past few years, Lehigh students and faculty have undertaken sustainable development projects in several countries. In Zambia, computer science and business majors updated a microfinance organization’s database. In Ghana, a multidisciplinary team helped form an NGO. students have also traveled to cambodia and Haiti with faculty from economics, international relations, sociology and education.

Researchers in the College of Business and Economics are focusing their efforts on microfinance, a banking service that provides small loans to residents of developing countries, most of them women, to help them start businesses and become self-sufficient.

“Our notion of sustainable development is development first, then sustainable,” says Todd Watkins, professor of economics and director of Lehigh’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. Watkins teaches a social entrepreneurship class with Orrs, and his students have completed technical projects for microfinance organizations in Ghana, Peru and Honduras.

“While environmental sustainability is a big piece of development,” says Watkins, “microfinance is equally as important for economic sustainability. Without financial backing, any project will fail. To make a difference, an engineering system must first be affordable enough for individuals or small microenterprises to buy and capitalize.”

Lehigh’s sustainable development initiative ramped up two years ago when Bernard Amadei, the founder of EWB, made his second visit to campus in six years. Soon afterward, a faculty group began meeting to explore ways of expanding on the EWB model and making it part of the curriculum.

The group took inspiration from Lehigh’s 30-year-old Integrated Product Development (IPD) program, in which teams of students in engineering, business and the arts spend a year designing, making and marketing a new product for industrial sponsors. The IPD program has won numerous national awards while expanding to include graduate students and students from other universities around the world.

Instead of product development, the sustainable development program assigns interdisciplinary teams of students to tackle problems of social and economic importance, at home and abroad.

A unique emphasis

Mark Orrs was an undergraduate student when he went on a study tour of the dominican Republic. “It was my first trip out of the country,” he says. “Seeing such a different culture and socioeconomic location profoundly influenced the path of my life.” Since then, Orrs has traveled multiple times to various countries, mostly in africa, to work on sustainable development projects.

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 help NGOs solve real-world problems.

One team has created an educational database for an NGO called caring for Cambodia, which supports 21 schools and 6,400 students. The organization was founded by William J. Amelio, who earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Lehigh in 1979, and his wife, Jamie.

Another team is tackling a domestic issue—the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region of the northeastern United States.

Other groups have developed a sustainable business model to address fluoride water treatment in Kenya, participated in Jellison’s biosand filter project in Nicaragua, and implemented a national lakes program in Haiti.

The students have also helped Orrs’ own NGO in Kenya evolve from a community-based organization helping homeless children to become part of the socioeconomic fabric of the community. The organization’s name is Harambee, which means “we all pull together” in Swahili and is also Kenya’s official motto.

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,” he says.

An ambitious agenda for the future

In the next few years, Lehigh is planning a significant expansion of its sustainability development program. To its existing expertise in water it will add faculty positions in primary health and epidemiology (with a focus on water-borne disease), environmental economics (focusing on health and water), community-based participatory methods (for implementing from the ground up), and quasi-experimental design (for the rigorous evaluation of impacts).

Additional study opportunities, including a paid summer internship in humanitarian engineering and a possible master’s program, are also on the horizon.

The new program in sustainable development, says Jellison, has spurred researchers to collaborate with colleagues they formerly had little contact with.

“Many of us have become too accustomed to working in our own little bubbles with colleagues from our own departments,” she says. “But there are opportunities for people across Lehigh to collaborate between disciplines to do meaningful research.”

As for Coviello, he will spend the summer studying forest conservation and ecotourism at the University of Georgia’s Costa Rica campus, thanks to a competitive grant from Lehigh’s Lee Iacocca International Internship program. Afterwards, he plans to attend graduate school in hopes one day of working in the international arena, either in sustainability or in environmental policy.

His work with Tarumitra, Broughal Middle school and points in between gives him inspiration.

“How we view the environment is often very generational,” he says. “Young people here and in India see the implications of their actions, and they’re making lifestyle changes that will have a positive effect on the world.”