D-Lab WASH Dissemination

Disseminating Water, Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) Innovations for the Common Good

Susan Murcott: D-Lab and MIT IDEAS Global Challenge: Lessons in Mentoring, Transdisciplinarity and Real World Engineering for Sustainable Development

MIT students Coyin Oh (’15) and Yiping Xing (’15), together with the Tamale, Ghana University of Development Studies sanitation club students, plus Susan Murcott. Coyin’s and Yiping’s team “Hope in Flight” won a 2013 IDEAS award for their sanitation solution to turn human waste into animal protein.

Educating the “whole  person” through transdisciplinary teams, am MIT team works with villagers from Tamale, Ghana building a water filter factory that helps provide local jobs and safe drinking water.






Lecturer Susan Murcott recently published (Springer, World Sustainability Series) an article, D-Lab and MIT IDEAS Global Challenge: Lessons in Mentoring, Transdisciplinarity and Real World Engineering for Sustainable Development, which is a reflection on her teaching at D-Lab and the engagement of her students in the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge over the past 14 years (2002–2015). Read on for the abstract and click through to the full article!


This paper reflects on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab and IDEAS Global Challenge pedagogy over the past 14 years (2002–2015). The MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, a program of the MIT Public Service Center, is an annual invention and entrepreneurship competition that awards up to $10,000 per MIT team for innovations and service projects that positively impact underserved communities. IDEAS student teams work with a community partner on projects that are designed to improve the quality of life globally. Since its founding in 2002, IDEAS has awarded more than $600,000 to 132 teams. D-Lab Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Environmental Innovations for the Common Good (D-Lab WASH + ENV) is a MIT course offered for the past 10 years within a curriculum of over 20 D-Lab classes in international development. This author has mentored several hundred student teams that have entered the IDEAS Global Challenge, mostly through this course D-Lab WASH + ENV, including 26 winning teams. Eighty-one percent of these IDEAS winning teams have been led by women students. This is a model of the kind of program that can bring gender parity to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines while nurturing the “whole student.” In common with the wider family of D-Lab courses, the D-Lab-WASH + ENV course is structured around experiential learning and real-world engineering. This paper links the Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) conference themes with the D-Lab/IDEAS pedagogy in terms of key concepts: mentoring, transdisciplinarity and real world engineering. It ends with challenges and recommendations.

About Susan Murcott

Susan Murcott is a Lecturer in D-Lab where, for the past 12 years, she has been teaching “D-Lab-Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Environmental Innovations for the Common Good” (EC.715/11.474J) and in 2016, is newly teaching D-Lab: Water and Climate Change (EC.S08/EC.S12). She is an environmental engineer with a focus on water. She has led MIT student teams in over 25 countries spanning five continents. In 2014-2015, she led the water filter evaluation of the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), a five-year USAID-funded project, to evaluate technologies for the poor. From 2005 to the present, she founded and helped establish the non-profit organization, Pure Home Water, with Ghanaian partners, which has built a ceramic pot filter factory to provide safe drinking water in northern Ghana. From 2002 to the present, she has been the principal investigator of a team, in partnership with the Environment and Public Health Organization in Kathmandu, Nepal, that invented and has widely disseminated the KanchanTM Arsenic Filter, as well as being involved in MIT-funded emergency relief following the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Murcott is the author of over 50 professional papers as well as the book Arsenic in the World: an International Sourcebook (IWA, 2012-Link).

D-Lab: Water, Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) + Environment – Reflections on the 1st 10 years

By Susan Murcott, D-Lab Instructor

Susan Murcott

“Hope in Flight” students Yiping Xing and Coyin Oh with their Black Soldier Fly composter in Tamale, Ghana 

Alice Amsden

Vac-Cast: a student team sand-casting prosthetic fitting technique 





I am delighted to have been invited to write about D-Lab: Evaluating, Disseminating and Scaling Up Global Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Environmental Innovations for the Common Good for the D-Lab Blog. This is the D-Lab class that may have the longest name in D-Lab class history!

Early years

D-Lab WASH + ENV, its simple name, began life in spring 2006 as “D-Lab III Disseminating Innovations for the Common Good.” D-Lab III Dissemination” and was one of the original ”D”s of D-Lab, back when D-Lab had evolved on from what was known as the Haiti class, and consisted of D-Lab I: Development, D-Lab II: Design, and D-Lab III: Dissemination.

For five years, from spring 2006 to spring 2010, the D-Lab III: Dissemination class focus was all manner of innovations in any sphere. Always, the emphasis of the class was to support students as they formulated an idea, innovation, or service project and to mentor them through the process of bringing that project to fruition. Entering the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge or some other competition or grant application process was always the deliverable for the class. 

The MIT course catalogue description from 2009 reads as follows:

D-Lab III is the third in the D-Lab trilogy of courses on "Development," "Design," and "Dissemination" focusing on disseminating innovations among underserved communities, especially in developing countries. Students acquire skills related to building partnerships and piloting, financing, implementing, and scaling-up a selected innovation for the common good. The course is structured around MIT competitions: IDEAS Global Challenge, $100K, Deshpande IdeasStream Innovation Showcase, and outside competitions…

Co-teaching with Alice Amsden

For two “middle” years, in spring 2009 and spring 2010, the course was joyfully and colorfully co-taught with Department of Urban Studies and Planning Professor Alice Amsden (1943 – 2012). We were a wonderful team! Alice had this deep economist’s knowledge of emerging economies, what she referred to as “the West and the Rest” and I had considerable experience with field-based engineering projects around the world with “the bottom billion.” She was a brilliant, eccentric and outspoken intellectual of great integrity, dedicated to her students, and ever eager to pursue new ways of thinking and teaching. This was how she happened to ask to co-teach a D-Lab class, and how I happened to be the lucky one to team up with her. 

WASH and environmental engineering projects

After this two-year experiment of co-teaching with Alice, she and I agreed that it was time to refocus the class from innovative projects on any subject to projects solely in my area of expertise -- WASH and environmental engineering projects. Thus, beginning in 2011, the class focused only on WASH and/or environmental projects. It was the next year in March 2012 that Alice passed away unexpectedly. She is sorely missed by those of us in D-Lab who had the privilege of knowing and working with her. 

Thus, for the past five years, D-Lab: WASH + ENV has been intentionally more narrowly circumscribed, even while D-Lab classes themselves have exploded into many wide and wonderful topic areas, including related areas, such as D-Lab: Waste, D-Lab: Biodiversity, Design for Scale.

Small but beautiful - and award-winning

This has kept D-Lab: WASH + ENV small, but always the class has subscribed to the philosophy that “small is beautiful.” While we have been small, with class sizes of about four to five teams each year, we have been “beautiful” insofar these teams have won many IDEAS Global Challenge and other competitions. In fact, teams mentored though this class, plus a few other teams from before D-Lab existed, have won prizes in 24 IDEAS Global Challenge Competitions from 2002 to 2014. Of 121 winning IDEAS teams total over that period, teams this class has helped to nurture and support represents 20 percent of all IDEAS winners – not a bad record! 

Having reflected on this small-is-beautiful past, in my next D-Lab Digest, I will welcome the opportunity writing about this year’s 2015 D-Lab WASH + ENV class and the projects, competitions and service learning in which we are engaged.

Susan Murcott
Instructor, D-Lab: WASH + ENV


Rainwater Filtration and Irrigation

A team from D-Lab's class on disseminating water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) innovations is designing a dry season rainwater filtration/irrigation system that will generate income and promote healthier lives for the residents of Tamaula, Mexico. The team plans to prototype the low-cost and easy to maintain filter over the summer.

Kosim Water Keg

150 Projects Tags: 
The Kosim Water Keg (KWK) seeks to filter water faster with less effort. It is formed from two traditional clay filters joined together to form a sealed keg in a traditional clay storage vessel. With twice the surface area and additional raw water pressure, the filter works faster. A simple siphon or hand pump passively extracts the clean water.
Northern Region

Bundt Water Purification Project

150 Projects Tags: 
This project aims to work with the lower income residents of Harar, living in the densely populated Jogol district, to provide a steady source of water through rainwater harvesting. Using clay and coffee beans, they are also creating a filtration system that can easily be produced by the local people.
Jogol District of Harar


ZacaTech is building hydroponics agricultural systems at schools, which can be expanded into greenhouses using recycled tires and plastic mattress bags. Through collaboration with Ciclo Reciclaje Residencial/AZAPE, students will be compensated for plastic bottles they recycle, generating funds to cover maintenance costs.


GrubCycle uses black soldier fly larvae to digest up to 50% of organic household waste, including excrement. Once the larvae grow into prepupae, they can then be harvested and sold to local vendors who process them as a source of protein in animal feed, generating income.
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