Undergraduates Travel to Kenya for Course on Sustainability

The interdisciplinary course on “Sustainability Challenges and Opportunities in East Africa”—taught by Joe Trumpey (Art and Design) and Steve Wright (Civil and Environmental Engineering) during the winter semester of 2011—included a “place-based” component that was held in Kenya in August of that year.  The course—one of a series of place-based courses sponsored by the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute—focused on the interconnections surrounding a resource—water—that many American undergrads take for granted. 

The Kenyan part of the course took place at the Mpala Research Center and Conservancy.  Before coming to Mpala, the students in the course had studied various aspects of water conservation, re-use, and challenges to the provision of a secure water supply.  For example, they examined the problem of competing demands for river water as local farms have started to produce flowers for the export market.  This activity decreases the availability of water for other users, even if the farms might otherwise impact the local economy positively through increased employment opportunities.  The students also investigated the solutions that are currently being implemented or proposed at Mpala in the face of this and similar challenges (such as drought), including the potential for water conservation; finally, they considered how these solutions might be made more broadly relevant to surrounding communities. 

During their time at Mpala, the U-M students were joined by their counterparts from the University of Nairobi and another student from Tanzania.  Together, they did a brief assessment of local conditions, before dividing up in three project groups that included students from both schools.  The first group addressed re-use of “gray water” from the kitchen and laundry facilities at the Mpala Research Center.  They proposed to use the gray water in a vegetable garden that would be established to meet part of the food needs for the Center.  The second group evaluated an existing plan to utilize surface water runoff captured behind small “weirs” during the rainy season, to augment supply during the dry seasons.  One of their findings was that bacterial pathogens were present in the water, which means that it must be treated before it can be used.  The third group analyzed options for reducing water consumption in typical activities at the Center.  According to Wright, one of the professors for the course, the place-based component at Mpala added an important dimension to the class.  In particular, he found it gratifying to witness how their time in Kenya gave the students a chance to rethink some of what they thought they knew. “When students arrive at the place and start to see how some of the impressions they formed in the initial discussion phase prior to the trip don’t quite match up with the reality on the ground,” he said, “they have to readjust their impressions.” 

Mpala Ranch manager Mike Littlewood describing the water supply at Mpala. Courtesy of Joe Trumpey.


Discussion of operations at one of the local flower farms. Courtesy of Joe Trumpey.