Focus, Higher Education, and Sustainability

Calvin tests ‘service learning’ with Clean Water Institute

New program is poised to make global waves for water and sanitation solutions.

August 21, 2015
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Calvin College Clean Water Institute
One of the programs offered through the Clean Water Institute will be a course during the January 2016 Interim semester that takes place in Ethiopia. ©

After several years of planning, the Clean Water Institute of Calvin College officially launched earlier this summer with a mission to provide clean water access in developing regions.

The institute offers a number of learning and research opportunities and will draw on the expertise of faculty and students from interdisciplinary areas to generate sustainable, lasting water safety solutions.

Currently housed in the Science Building at 1726 Knollcrest Circle SE on Calvin’s Grand Rapids campus, the CWICC allows students to coordinate classes from a variety of degree programs, including global health, community development and engineering.

The CWICC also has ongoing research and scholarship in fields such as pharmaceutical and slow sand filtration, bagasse charcoal for water treatment, and arsenic removal technologies, according to the institute’s website.

David Wunder, director of CWICC and professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the institute will focus on three primary areas: service learning; traditional classroom and field learning experiences; and research and scholarship around water and sanitation issues in developing countries.

“A key driver in the formation of the institute is about the experience of the students at Calvin College, and relatively recent research has really heralded the importance of service learning as part of an education, and cross-cultural engagement as part of transformative education,” said Wunder.

Combined with addressing the need for access to clean water in developing regions, Wunder said the hope is Calvin College students will have a transformational experience while they are serving and working overseas and also partnering in the state.

“The hope is they will not only learn about water — communities and water and cultural aspects of water in developing regions — but also they will take things to heart that really change the way they view the world and the way they see themselves and their place within this world,” said Wunder.

Initial development of the CWICC began in the spring of 2012 when a group of five individuals — three Calvin representatives and two alumni — discussed the idea of an institute at the college that would focus on water concerns, according to Wunder.

As members of the Grand Rapids business community specializing in hydrogeology and environmental concerns, Wunder said the two Calvin alumni saw the potential for others in similar fields who might be interested in working in water treatment technology or distribution systems.

“I took that brainstorming session and what I knew about Calvin — its mission, its strengths as an academic undergraduate institution — and thought hard about what it might look like as an institute at Calvin, and I developed a proposal,” said Wunder.

“It was an internal proposal I shared with this external group, an informal vision committee, and we refined it over a couple of meetings.”

Due to some financial hardships the college faced later that year, the work toward establishing CWICC was stalled until the college was on better financial footing.

“We continued to meet every three or four months and talk about the proposal, about components of the institute, timing and financing, and then late summer of 2014, we officially shared the proposal with folks at Calvin,” said Wunder.

Based on the level of interest and support for the work and the establishment of an institute, Wunder said the proposal was shared with the Planning and Priorities Committee at Calvin to be officially reviewed and eventually approved.

Once endorsed by the committee, the proposal was submitted to the Faculty Senate and approved in mid-November 2014, before being presented to the board of trustees in February. In order to be approved, Wunder said the expectation was the CWICC would have two years of operating budget in hand.

With the official establishment of the CWICC in advance of the 2015-16 academic year, work during the first year will focus on identifying partners, developing partnerships for future work, identifying pilot projects and programs that will serve as launching points, and offering an interim course in Ethiopia in January 2016.

“The proposal approved included a five-year plan, sort of a launch plan and ramp-up,” said Wunder. “We would very much like to partner with folks in the West Michigan and Michigan community, within the Calvin community, who have a shared interest in water and sanitation overseas, but in order for us to be effective at our work, we necessarily have to partner with folks in the regions we are working.”

Types of partners CWICC could pursue overseas include the communities in which the work and research is conducted, governmental agencies, and nongovernmental agencies dedicated to improving access to clean water.

“There is a huge spectrum of potential partners for this work,” said Wunder. “It is presumptuous and would almost do more harm than good if we are not firmly locked with folks in the regions who live there, who work there and who can really inherit and develop the programs and systems we are focused on.”

Faculty members of the institute include: Robert Hoeksema, professor of engineering; Gerry Van Kooten, professor of geology; Jonathan Bascom, professor of geography and department chair; and Jason VanHorn, associate professor of geography.

Based on its cross-disciplinary focus, Wunder said the institute has plenty of infrastructure and room to function, and would expect to revisit additional space needs in three to four years.

“I think there is obviously a terrific need globally for access to clean water, and I think Calvin College has been focused on issues of global concerns since its start better than a century ago,” said Wunder.

“It is really exciting we have this opportunity to focus on a global concern that fits so well and strategically within Calvin’s mission.”

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