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Suggested Citation:"Cornell University." National Academy of Engineering. 2012. Infusing Real World Experiences into Engineering Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18184.


Lead Institution: Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Collaborating Institutions: Non-profit sector, international water organizations, national and local government

Category: Global/Humanitarian

Date Implemented: Spring 2005




Program Description: The AguaClara program at Cornell University is a group of faculty and students working together with the goal of researching, inventing, and designing sustainable municipal-scale drinking water treatment plants to empower resource-poor communities around the world. Through our partnership with a local non-profit organization, water treatment plants designed by Cornell students are being built in Honduras on an ongoing basis. There are currently six plants providing safe drinking water to 32,300 people every day. The AguaClara water treatment plant technology addresses the

global challenge of providing a sustainable method for surface water treatment for human consumption. The AguaClara Program designs treatment systems that function at the community scale rather than at point of use, and the ensuing economies

of scale make the cost of safe drinking water sustainable even to communities with very limited recourses. The AguaClara technology seeks to rectify the shortcomings of the available community drinking water treatment plant technologies by offering a design based on the real water quality, economic, operational, and governance needs of small and mid-sized developing communities. AguaClara technology is being used by community-based water service organizations in small and mid-size towns in Honduras. The local Water Board is trained in the administration of the treatment plant. One or more local residents become plant operators, responsible for the daily operation of the treatment plant as paid employees of the Water Board. As the purveyor of the technology, Agua Para el Pueblo (APP) directs the construction and training programs, but the end owner and beneficiary of the project is the community through its Water Board. The Water Board independently administers the completed project exclusively with the water fees it collects from users and without subsidy. It is not uncommon for an AguaClara research team to take an idea for an improvement to a plant component, research the constraints, design and build a prototype and send the design to Honduras to be built into a plant within a year. This fast turnaround time allows students to see the direct impact of their work before graduating from Cornell. The direct link to the real world also motivates students to do high-quality work with externally imposed deadlines.

Anticipated and Actual Outcomes: When the AguaClara program began, the students and faculty involved with the program expected to develop a solution that fit the context of resource-poor communities in Honduras, to allow users in real-world conditions evaluate this solution, and to use this feedback to improve the designs. The students who participate in the AguaClara program have taken advantage of the opportunity to engage with a global problem, as evidenced by the number of

students and the duration of their participation in the project (approximately 3 semesters). Many

graduate and undergraduate students have made the decision to attend Cornell because of the experience offered by the AguaClara program. Over one hundred students have traveled to Honduras during the January intercession for an educational exchange trip. Students engage with the plant operators, community members, and local engineers to gain a more complete understanding of the problem and context for which

they are designing. AguaClara technology has reached over 32,300 people.

Assessment Information: The AguaClara program can be evaluated by the amount of student interest it has generated and sustained since 2005. The quality of the

students’ work can be seen in the performance of the water treatment plants they designed -- over 32,000 people are now served by AguaClara technology in Honduras. The fiscal sustainability of the plants can be assessed based on their financial viability in the long run. All seven of the plants built since the program’s inception in 2005 remain in service, and the water boards that control them have successfully managed tariffs to keep the plants well maintained. The pride community members take in taking charge of their water supply is evident in the words of Antonia Lira, the president of the water board in Alauca, Honduras: "We have time to overcome the errors that our grandfathers made. They have passed the bill on to us, and it’s our turn to pay it. Now, thanks to God, man has given us this technology, this plant. I feel very proud that I’ve given something good to my children. They will have clean water, treated water.”

Funding/Sustainability: Typically, local government funds 15-20% of the project and international organizations contribute the remainder through APP. After construction, the low operational costs of AguaClara plants facilitate full support by local communities. Although APP has been the primary purveyor of AguaClara to date, the delivery process could be replicated by other institutions with engineering and governance expertise in community water supply. The initial costs are difficult to estimate, including program founder Monroe Weber-Shirk’s salary, laboratory space donated by the department, laboratory supplies, and preliminary trips to Honduras. Approximately $175,000 would be estimated for these costs. The San Juan Foundation provided much of the initial funding. Funding from a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant provided some salary support. The EPA’s P3 competition provided $85,000 for chemical dosing research (2009-2011). The undergraduate and graduate students associated with the project apply for funding on an ongoing basis.

Suggested Citation:"Cornell University." National Academy of Engineering. 2012. Infusing Real World Experiences into Engineering Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18184.
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The aim of this report is to encourage enhanced richness and relevance of the undergraduate engineering education experience, and thus produce better-prepared and more globally competitive graduates, by providing practical guidance for incorporating real world experience in US engineering programs. The report, a collaborative effort of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD), builds on two NAE reports on The Engineer of 2020 that cited the importance of grounding engineering education in real world experience. This project also aligns with other NAE efforts in engineering education, such as the Grand Challenges of Engineering, Changing the Conversation, and Frontiers of Engineering Education.

This publication presents 29 programs that have successfully infused real world experiences into engineering or engineering technology undergraduate education. The Real World Engineering Education committee acknowledges the vision of AMD in supporting this project, which provides useful exemplars for institutions of higher education who seek model programs for infusing real world experiences in their programs. The NAE selection committee was impressed by the number of institutions committed to grounding their programs in real world experience and by the quality, creativity, and diversity of approaches reflected in the submissions. A call for nominations sent to engineering and engineering technology deans, chairs, and faculty yielded 95 high-quality submissions. Two conditions were required of the nominations: (1) an accredited 4-year undergraduate engineering or engineering technology program was the lead institutions, and (2) the nominated program started operation no later than the fall 2010 semester. Within these broad parameters, nominations ranged from those based on innovations within a single course to enhancements across an entire curriculum or institution.

Infusing Real World Experiences into Engineering Education is intended to provide sufficient information to enable engineering and engineering technology faculty and administrators to assess and adapt effective, innovative models of programs to their own institution's objectives. Recognizing that change is rarely trivial, the project included a brief survey of selected engineering deans concern in the adoption of such programs.

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