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Craig Just holding a beaker.
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CRAIG JUST From international service trips to Guitar Hero analogies, Craig Just finds creative ways to make classroom projects mean something more.

Some years ago, Craig Just traveled to Guatemala and saw the scarcity of drinking water, the unsafe living conditions, the utter poverty.

That trip and others inspired Just, associate research engineer in the University of Iowa College of Engineering, to create a service-learning course called Design for the Developing World. His course, in turn, has inspired students from engineering and other fields to devote their talents to improving water, sanitation, energy, shelter, and food.

Just’s projects have students cooking with solar ovens, designing easily assembled refugee shelters, and developing a handheld water sanitizer that could disinfect drinking water for impoverished communities around the world.

“The projects in Design for the Developing World are all done with the mindset that technology isn’t enough,” Just says. “In many places, people truly rely on a sustainable environment for their livelihood.”

The handheld water sanitizer that emerged from this course has earned national recognition and additional funding to help Just’s students develop the project.

Just and a team of four students took their idea to Washington, D.C., for the National Sustainable Design Expo in April 2008. This competition encourages college students to solve environmental problems by developing sustainable technological solutions that are environmentally friendly, efficient, and economical.

The sanitizer project began when Washington, Iowa, water plant superintendent John Hays brought a municipal-scale electrolytic chlorine generator to Just’s class. The students were impressed, but felt they could improve upon the large-scale model.

They came up with a more accessible and sustainable version. It is sized for individual households, and works on a hand crank rather than batteries—a key aspect when considering the resources in poor countries.

The UI group was one of just six teams honored at the competition, which yielded an additional $75,000 in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to take the project further.

“We hope to multiply the $75,000 award tenfold in the coming year so we can make a substantial human health impact in our target countries,” Just says.

Just recently received the UI President and Provost Award for Teaching Excellence, and he embraces his mentoring and networking role in the College of Engineering. He aims to embed one eastern Iowa professional engineer within each of his student design teams. And students who seek guidance from Just have plenty of opportunities—he advertises his office hours as “almost unlimited.”

“My courses go beyond the traditional classroom experience,” Just says. “I get the chance to travel with my students to poor countries, live dormitory-style in harsh conditions. You get to know people through those situations. I admire these students so much for what they do.”

And Just delivered the spring 2008 Last Lecture, in which he compared life as a UI alumnus to the popular video game Guitar Hero.

“In Guitar Hero, different combinations of colors are flying at you; to make good music, you have to use the right combination,” Just says. “How does this apply to UI graduates? If you want to do the most with your academic knowledge, you must be aware of your own personality and the personalities of those around you. Think of each personality as a color—how they interconnect plays a big part in having success.”

Story by Christopher Clair; Photo by Tim Schoon

Oct. 6, 2008