The Earth Clinic: Solving Real-World Problems
Practice is a core activity of any problem solving entity of academia that provides solutions to real world problems. Practice is informed by basic and applied research, thus bringing the most advanced knowledge base to the field, the ultimate test bed of theories and hypotheses developed in the research and teaching environment of academic institutions. At the same time, practice is a constant source of new scientific problems that require further basic and/or applied research. This fruitful synergy between research and practice forms the foundation for achieving change in the ways society responds to the challenge of sustainable development through academically informed problem solving.
As the Earth Institute’s main practice instrument, the Earth Clinic is designed to serve the immediate needs of clients in developing countries by creatively responding to pressing economic and environmental problems. These needs are identified and analyzed; then suitable applications or interventions that help to ensure sustainable development are devised. The Earth Clinic offers science-based assistance to urgent issues of economic development, public health, energy systems, water management, agriculture and infrastructure. The clinic’s work differs from traditional consulting in that it brings a solid academic component to problem solving. An important element in this effort is close work with local partners on design and implementation to ensure long-term project effectiveness. Much of the Earth Clinic’s work stems from current Earth Institute research projects (like those in the CCI) that have developed interventions ready for application in the field. Current projects include the Millennium Villages Project, the Millennium Cities Initiative, expanding healthcare in Ethiopia, and reducing arsenic exposure in Bangladesh.
The Earth Clinic Steering Committee guides the Earth Clinic’s further development, as well as the investment of seed funding and the Countess Moira Charitable Endowment. To learn who is a member of the Earth Clinic Steering Committee, please visit the Earth Clinic Steering Committee webpage.
Click here for information on how you can help support the Earth Clinic.
Story About Projects of the Earth Institute
In the face of diminishing natural resources, exposure to pollution and extreme poverty, impoverished communities can greatly benefit from interventions such as improved cook stoves or new bicycles that can be made locally and sustainably. On March 12, 2009, the Earth Clinic at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, held a conference to showcase these and other interventions made possible through Earth Clinic seed funding grants. Opening remarks by the director of the Earth Clinic and associate director of the Earth Institute, Peter Schlosser, highlighted the purpose, motivation and meaning behind this clinic. Schlosser said, “The Earth Clinic is the Earth Institute's mechanism to transfer academia's immense knowledge base to problems in the field of sustainable development and it is a test bed for its research findings in real-world situations.” Read more...
Bridging theory and practice is a critical step in the process of effecting change in settings where time and resources are often not available to conduct pilot studies. At the conference, researchers shared their project findings, highlighting the true cross-disciplinary aspects of these projects and what they involved in terms of implementation. Part of the purpose of the showcase was to encourage more proposals and give potential grantees an idea of what kinds of projects typically receive seed money. The presenters also discussed ways in which Earth Clinic projects have led to further funding and have had meaningful impacts on the lives of those living in the developing world.
Lex van Geen, associate director of the Earth Clinic and Doherty Senior Research Scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, reiterated that, “This clinic is about trying to find out if what you have done through an intervention has worked and then re-evaluating ones that don’t work. Impact evaluation components are built into the design of these projects. These projects strive to be interdisciplinary in nature and funding is often given to proposals that reach across schools and disciplines.”
Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering, said of the clinic, “The distance between what you do and how it reaches people can be very far, so these projects are about reducing these gaps.” There has been tremendous student interest in Earth Clinic projects as well. “Students want to engage in engineering that matters,” said Patricia Culligan, professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics. Due to the diverse topical backgrounds of students getting involved, these projects are becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary and increasingly successful.
Practical examples of the intersections between science, culture, business, politics and more were present in each of the projects showcased at the conference. One project aimed at reducing arsenic exposure in Bangladesh, led by Lex van Geen, Joe Graziano, associate dean for research and professor in the department of environmental health sciences, and environmental health sciences student Khalid Khan, found that information flow presented one of the biggest unforeseen obstacles in helping to alleviate arsenic exposure in Bangladeshi communities.
Although arsenic exposure is known to be derived from the use of shallow wells in flat, low-lying areas with young sediment, the means to communicate this information are lacking. Therefore, one aspect of the project, guided by Khan, includes implementing educational programs in 18 elementary schools that are having new deeper wells built to reduce arsenic exposure. As these wells are constructed, educational programs are initiated through teacher training sessions that will be passed on to students in order to increase both the understanding of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution. The team also began reaching out to the Bangladeshi government to discuss setting up an information dissemination text messaging system regarding arsenic and these wells as well as creating a health line phone number, leveraging the recent increase in cell phone usage and service coverage in Bangladesh.
Another aspect of the project included a study recruiting 1100 Bangladeshi children to self-report their drinking habits, which would not only aid in information collection but potentially encourage usage of better wells and drinking habits that could be passed on to their peers. As explained by Graziano at the conference, “High concentrations of urinary arsenic are directly correlated with cognitive deficits and impaired visual cognitive function in children.”
The project’s progress led to the awarding of a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation’s ”Dynamics in Human Behavior” program to team member Malgosia Madajewicz, associate research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Earth Institute. The overall success of the project is likely to impact policies on the ground in Bangladesh and motivate more long-term research. Future projections for the project include using village risk estimates to set up an arsenic exposure insurance system, which could both improve villagers’ health and stimulate their economies.
A second Earth Clinic project is helping to both solve a practical problem and develop a new sustainable market in Africa. It involves the innovations of a team of Earth Clinic-funded scientists and engineers looking to speed up sustainable transport in Africa. The project was initiated in 2006 through collaboration between then Lamont-Doherty Research Scientist David Ho and John Mutter, a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences, and has since brought on board Marty Odlin, assistant director of the Education Center for Sustainable Engineering at the department of civil engineering and engineering mechanics.
In many rural African communities, health care, education and economic development are limited by the fact that villagers can only get so far on foot. Bicycles are becoming an ever more popular mode of personal and cargo transportation in these communities, but these bicycles are largely imported from China and made with cheap steel that poorly withstands unpaved roads. The bicycles often break and are also expensive to import. Ho and Mutter thought, “Why should communities be importing expensive, yet cheaply made, unsuitable bikes when they could be building them themselves using naturally abundant and renewable local materials?” Their Earth Clinic grant has been used to develop a market for bicycles made from locally abundant and sustainable bamboo in Kumasi, Ghana, that could eventually be expanded in size and scope and managed by local communities. While Odlin has pushed the design of the bamboo bicycle to fit specific geographical and use requirements, the Millennium Cities Initiative has stepped in to help analyze feasibility of wide scale production of these bikes and is aiding in the solicitation of investors in the project. In the next phases of the project, bamboo bikes are being shipped to various parts of the region to gauge community interest and market viability.
Another intersection of health, environment and culture can be seen in the Earth Clinic project run by Darby Jack, associate research scientist in the department of environmental health sciences. The project involves cook stove interventions in Kintampo, Ghana. In many rural village communities worldwide, complications from inhalation of smoke emitted by the traditional three-stone indoor cooking fires is the second leading cause of death in women. Jack and his team of health practitioners collaborated with the Kintampo Health Research Centre to study the degree to which the replacement of open cooking fires with closed cook stoves would improve women’s health as well as what factors would motivate women to start using cook stoves.
Through the creation of personal monitoring devices, individual exposures were monitored pre- and post-stove installation. Stove installations resulted in moderate reductions of personal exposure to carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Once stoves were widely distributed and installed, Jack’s team noticed that women were using both the traditional cooking fires and the newly installed stoves. Certain traditional foods requiring vigorous stirring and specific heat requirements and could not be adequately cooked using the new, narrower stoves. While Jack’s team achieved a successful intervention, there was still a lesson to be learned in terms of cook stove design that was only realized once the product was tested on the ground. After receiving their initial seed money from the Earth Clinic, Jack’s team was able to secure an additional pilot grant from the NIEHS Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan. Jack’s team is also partnering with Enterprise Works to set up a supply chain for improved cooking stoves. Together with Enterprise Works, Jack’s team has also obtained a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Millennium Village of Dertu, Kenya, is comprised of both a sedentary community and a large pastoral roaming community. According to a survey, 90 percent of the pastoral community in Dertu is illiterate. Recognizing this desperate need for education, Nikki Spicer, education coordinator for the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program at the Earth Institute, and a team funded through an Earth Clinic seed grant set out to address this complicated problem. As Spicer remarked during her presentation, “It is difficult for education to be a priority for a community that is nomadic and in search of crucial survival elements such as water.” Pastoral communities also have more difficulty following any sort of academic calendar or curriculum due to movements based on seasonal wet and dry periods.
In light of these limitations, Spicer and her team members began implementing mobile education units that could reach these communities. The team also realized that some of the reluctance parents had to sending their children to school was due to safety concerns, as schools are often located far from home. The next step the project took was building protective fencing around schools as well as teaming up with Ericsson to expand the cell phone coverage network and distribute cell phones to children and their parents, enabling communication and helping to address this lynchpin issue affecting enrollment rates at local schools. As is seen through the Pastoralist Education in Dertu project, there are opportunities for expansion of education and technology that can ultimately benefit all stakeholders involved. While only 371 children were enrolled in the education system in 2006, thanks to Spicer and her team, 921 students are now enrolled.
As sustainable development becomes increasingly intertwined with policy, humanitarian justice, engineering, health and the environment, the discipline must be supported by research institutions such as the Earth Institute and funding opportunities such as those available through the Earth Clinic. Schlosser, director of the Earth Clinic, said, “The Earth Clinic is the platform for the Earth Institute, as one of the major sustainable development initiatives in academia, to test its basic research findings in real-world settings. If the solutions designed in basic research work, the Earth Clinic moves on to new sets of problems. If they fail, there will be a new round of research to come up with new designs for solutions.”
The Earth Clinic will continue to allocate project seed funding to Columbia University faculty and research staff. The Earth Clinic fund has $150,000 to be awarded in increments up to $30,000. For more information on the competition, please click here.
Arsenic Contamination in Bangladesh
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A pilot subsidized cook stove program for sub-Saharan Africa
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Bamboo bicycles as sustainable transportation in Africa: A feasibility study
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