UI students work to develop sustainable toilet


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University of Iowa senior Bailee McClellan is not just hitting the books this semester, but she is also hitting the bricks.

In McClellan’s group, she and seven other classmates are focusing on creating a stationary toilet that will turn urine into fertilizer, compost feces, and use the roof as a rainwater collector. Their mission: to create a perfect “potty for the people.”

“We have to think about sustainability from the perspective of what we can do to make their lives better,” McClellan said.

Design for the Developing World is a course provided by the UI College of Engineering. This semester, Craig Just, assistant professor of civil and environmental Engineering, teaches the course.

Through this interdisciplinary course, students have the opportunity to focus on issues that individuals face in the developing world. This semester, the students are engaging in a project modeled on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Six teams participate in the course — each developing their version of an easily sustainable toilet.

“We don’t have the right kind of toilets in developing countries or even in rural places,” Just said. “We work in Ghana in a village called Kobriti, and the people there really want toilets, and they need help to learn how to build them.”

The toilets vary in cost depending on each group design. One design could cost a few hundred dollars, and another design could cost up to $2,000, Just said.

The students are not actually building their toilet ideas, but they will be building a pre-designed composting latrine as part of the course.

This project will help students learn how to build toilets, treat water, supply sustainable energy, produce food, and provide shelter before going to Ghana.

Although this course is offered through the UI College of Engineering, the students registered for this course vary from many different degree backgrounds, such as international studies, geography, finance, and biology.

“Technology is not the only focus,” Just said. “Part of it is cultural aspects and focuses on different issues that cultures can face.”

One engineering student, Lee Hauser, opened his mind to new perceptions with the inclusion of non-engineering majors in the course.

“I think the engineers think one way, and the non-engineering majors made the project more creative, which was really beneficial,” Hauser said.

Although this project has not been done in this course before, several other projects focused on sanitation have been taught, Just said. One other project includes a handheld bleach generator used for disinfecting drinking water.

McClellan said this course involved building skills that she was not used to. However it also provided a new way to look at life, she said.

“This course has definitely helped me think about a different culture and how to tie building and issues together,” she said.

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