top of page

Innovating Education at GWHT

Updated: Nov 15, 2023


Our Philosophy

GWHT is guided by a core set of principles that shape our educational approach and foster an inclusive learning environment across the middle school, high school, and higher education continuum. Our philosophy is based on the belief that everyone has the innate ability to create, to produce new ideas and knowledge collectively and to translate them into meaningful impact. We aim to inspire students with the belief that they can contribute to society not only in the future but also while they learn. Our ultimate goal is to leverage design thinking and technical innovation to create equitable solutions for communities where access to educational and healthcare systems is limited by financial or geographic barriers.

Engineering design principles can be utilized to develop simple yet effective solutions to life-altering community problems such as blackouts. This is the very concept behind the Ignite program which enables middle and high school students to tackle challenges in their own communities through place-based education. The Ignite program is both global and local, with one example being the program at the WISER secondary school in Muhuru Bay, Kenya. In 2014, undergraduate students from GWHT served as “Trainers” to empower “Learners” through a participatory learning approach in developing a practical and sustainable solution to reliable lighting during blackouts. Learners then became Trainers empowered to teach, creating a continuous cycle of design education and novel ideas to address other important challenges within their communities. In Guatemala, students living around Lake Atitlan created simple technical solutions to water pollution, which not only dealt with misinformation but also fostered political will, an unexpected outcome.

Ignite has recently been expanded to our backyard in Durham, NC as a local place-based engineering design program for “Learners” (middle-schoolers) in collaboration with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC who then graduate to the “Makers” program (high school students) to address challenges related to energy, water and health in North Carolina. Through Duke Engage, we also participate in an immersive parallel program to Ignite, a residential program in collaboration with Girls Inc. of Orange County. In this case, undergraduate students spend the entire summer together in Southern California mentoring middle school learners and building camaraderie with their peers. Trainers from different disciplines are recruited from all corners of Duke who draw on their life experiences to enrich the curricula and the experiences of young learners during their participatory learning experience.

“It was a great way to get into STEM and a great experience to get into a new side of STEM I hadn’t seen before. It was fun to work with the trainers and put together a new prototype!" -- Middle school Water team member

"Duke Ignite has informed and accelerated my goal to innovate for impact. I began as a Maker in 2021, when I acquired a fundamental skill set for human-centered design that seamlessly translated to my studies in engineering. Today, I am the lead of Ignite Entrepreneurs, a program designed to equip students with the foundational knowledge of business and entrepreneurship to scale projects for end-user delivery. Put together, the curricula and faculty behind these programs have been integral to my extracurricular and intellectual development, sharpening my understanding of what impact is, who it's for, and how students like me can make it happen."
--Mason Sufnarski

Ignite and our Duke course Biomedical Engineering for Global Health (formed around a forthcoming textbook written by Professors Ramanujam and Crouch) share common elements. The course requires innovators to think about how to deliver high-end technologies to hospitals to communities where patients live. This is akin to the challenges the WISER students face. They don’t have reliable access to the grid, so they need to innovate on different ways to get the grid to their school.  Students learn about exciting 21st century point-of-care technologies, ranging from molecular testing, imaging and low-cost therapeutics and how those can be applied to close the health disparities gap. Their design challenge in this course is to build on the concept of “see one, do one, teach one” to continually create new curricula that can introduce these concepts to K-12 learners and makers.


Students in the Biomedical Engineering for Global Health course learn about a point-of-care technology called the Pocket Colposcope developed at the GWHT. The Pocket brings the gynecological exam from the hospital level to a community clinic. Commercializing the technology is only one milestone toward impact. The product needs to be able to solve a problem within a specific healthcare system. Business, medical, graduate, and undergraduate students explore these complex problems in a project-based Bass Connections course developed at the GWHT. Students learn how to employ a holistic, system-based approach to identify the key actors important to the uptake of new healthcare technologies and models. They learn about the historical, cultural, and social fabric of the populations in these settings. They learn how to build respectful anti-oppressive partnerships that value the contribution of each partner. They co-create strategies to turn barriers into opportunities and concepts into impact.  This educational model has led to additional project-based courses that advance new innovations we have developed towards impact, whether it is evaluating the educational impact of Ignite or a point-of-care technology developed at the GWHT to address a specific health disparity.


The project-based course has been a catalyst to creating local and international partnerships. We have created a Post-Baccalaureate Fellows program to recruit recent graduates from a diverse set of majors and positions to work with our team to accomplish real-world deliverables in global health. This training program engages these young professionals in implementation science, product design and regulatory processes, and policy analysis.  These trainees work with in-country partners to facilitate the adoption of the Pocket Colposcope in community-level settings where cervical cancer prevention solutions are non-existent. As one example, the Pocket Colposcope has been a critical component of a suite of point-of-care technologies that has led to midwife-operated community clinics that have expanded to now manage the cervical cancer screening-to-treatment process in a single visit in the Andean city of Cajamarca, Peru. A similar model is now being evaluated in Western Kenya.


Graduate students in collaboration with undergraduate mentees continue to feed the pipeline of innovations that are informed by the challenges observed at the community level creating a virtuous cycle of concept to impact. They have the freedom to explore vastly different scientific disciplines, to conceive of yet unimagined ideas, and help shepherd them all the way to a commercial product in collaboration with students in the various courses and initiatives at the GWHT. Their research embodies a common theme – mitigating cancer recurrence and nipping early-stage disease before it advances to cancer. They share a singular goal – to impact the lives of individuals who are at risk or have cancer across traditional boundaries.


In closing, we believe that education should be purpose-driven and problem-solving oriented towards creating an effective and inclusive learning environment. We strive to co-learn across disciplines and age groups to create knowledge together and ensure that we are always working towards tangible goals.  Each of our trainees, through their unique contributions, are creating the building blocks to pave the way for themselves and others to change the world that they live in.



bottom of page