Alice Agogino Wins Highest U.S. Award for Mentoring

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino has been named winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, the government’s highest honor for mentors who have worked to expand talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The award was announced June 25 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. Agogino, the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, was one of 41 honorees to receive the award at a ceremony last week in Washington, D.C.

Professor Agogino has had a long and illustrious history of mentoring university students and junior faculty as well as engaging with local schools, museums and organizations to engage K-12 students in STEM topics. To support engineering students at UC Berkeley, she created a tiered mentoring network, in which senior doctoral students advise masters and undergraduate students. Over the years, she has been in high demand as a mentor by those who want to use their STEM educations for positive social impact. She also has built a reputation for designing courses that attract a high percentage of women and under-represented minorities.

At the Blum Center, Professor Agogino has been pivotal in creating the new field of Development Engineering, whose mission is to reframe development and the alleviation of poverty by educating engineering and social science students to create, test, apply and scale technologies for societal benefit. Development Engineering students, she has written, must learn “21st century skills”—interdisciplinary, team-based methods that are oriented to seeing problems from multiple viewpoints (quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic) and applying them through entrepreneurial pathways.

Professor Agogino is not new to awards. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is the previous recipient of an ASME Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award “for tireless efforts in furthering engineering design education.” At UC Berkeley, she has received Chancellor Awards for Public Service, a Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence and a Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring. She was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, has won many best paper awards and has been honored with a National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award and a AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, the latter for increasing the number of women and African- and Hispanic-American doctorates in mechanical engineering.

Her work in decision-analytic approaches to engineering design led to a whole new field of research, and her research in mass customization became a patent-buster for licenses in database-driven Internet commerce. If that were not enough, Squishy Robotics, Inc., Professor Agogino’s startup company, recently was awarded a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to conduct research and development work on “Shape-Shifting Robots for Disaster Rescue, Monitoring and Education.”

Professor Agogino has explained that she was inspired to become a mentor due to her own experience at the University of New Mexico, where she was the only female mechanical engineering undergraduate student, and at UC Berkeley, where she became the first woman to receive tenure in her field. Professor Agogino uses a mentoring approach that she calls “designing for diversity.” By emphasizing the social impact of solving research problems, this strategy helps students feel connected to their work and motivated to persist in engineering.

Big Ideas Abroad

In February 2018, Big Ideas Contest Director, Phillip Denny, traveled to Kampala, Uganda to explore opportunities for Big Ideas expansion in Africa, in partnership with Makerere University. Makerereone of Africa’s leading institutions of higher education—has been a key partner of Big Ideas since 2013. Over the last five years Makerere’s involvement in Big Ideas has grown steadily, as has its reputation as a regional leader in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship among students. Big Ideas is working with Makerere to advance the mission of the competition, which challenges students to dream big about how they might change the world, and supports them to execute that vision.

“Like Big Ideas, Makerere provides a supportive ecosystem that helps students, particularly those who are in the early stages of innovation, realize their dream of making a positive impact on society,” said Denny.

This year, over 50 student teams, representing over 150 students, from Makerere University submitted proposals to Big Ideas, and nine teams advanced to the final round—a record for Makerere. During his trip, Denny mentored teams as they worked to complete their final proposals. He was impressed by the creativity of their innovations, as well as the incredible energy and commitment shown by each team.

“What stands out to me in my work with Makerere students is that many of them are from communities that are directly impacted by the challenges the students are seeking to solve,” said Denny.  “When you meet with them you immediately grasp their passion and dedication, which is undoubtedly fueled by their personal and first-hand experiences with the issues they’re trying to solve.”

Deborah Naatujuna, Engagement Manager for the Resilient Africa Network, which hosts the Big Ideas Contest at Makerere, noted the many ways Big Ideas has fostered student collaboration and innovation on campus.

“One of the requirements of the contest is to have a strong team, so students who ordinarily work alone have been able to onboard students from other disciplines. For example, engineering students will work with business students. We did not have this interdisciplinary engagement before, but the contest has improved collaboration between students from different disciplines,” said Naatujna.

The contest has also had a significant impact on students’ relationships with faculty members, breaking down barriers and fostering an innovator-mentor relationship that did not exist before.

“Big Ideas has fostered an innovator-mentor relationship that is not intimidating. Students at Makerere are used to working with academic supervisors in an environment that can often be intimidating for the student, but mentorship through Big Ideas is focused on constructive feedback and collaboration. Participating in the contest has helped students work with their professors in a more collegial way and develop close relationships with their mentors.”

When Big Ideas first launched at Makerere five years ago, the majority of proposals submitted were from male teams. Since then, the involvement of female students from Makerere has also grown.“In the beginning, we had very few females taking part in Big Ideas, but now we have more. Some of the teams are led by women while other teams are completely female. When female students worked with their male counterparts [before], the male students would do the majority of the work. Now we are seeing all-female teams as well as mixed teams in which everyone takes part,” said Naatujuna.

Innovations that were developed on Makerere’s campus include Mama-OPE, a cell-phone based lung monitoring device that helps diagnose pneumonia, and PedalTap, which won 3rd place in the highly competitive Global Health category. Mama-Ope was recently featured on CNN/Africa, and in 2017, PedalTap won Johnson & Johnson’s first Africa Innovation Challenge.

To learn more about the Big Ideas Contest, visit 

Trailblazers: The Global Impact of Blum Center Female Faculty, Staff and Students

Gamechangers. Engineers. Innovators. Researchers. Entrepreneurs. These are just a few of the words that describe the outstanding women of the Blum Center ecosystem. In honor of National Women’s History month, the Blum Center recognizes the outstanding work, achievements, and global impacts of these trailblazing women.


Laura Tyson, Board Chair, Blum Center for Developing Economies
Renowned economist, Laura Tyson, has spent a large portion of her career demonstrating how empowering women is morally right and economically smart, and that the economic and human-development costs associated with gender gaps are substantial. As co-author of Leave No One Behind, a “call-to-action” report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Tyson shows how gender equality and women’s economic empowerment are central to the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals, and cautions that progress has been too slow. In the UN report, Tyson identifies concrete actions the international community can take to expand women’s economic opportunities ranging from legal reform to changing business norms.


Erica Stone, Blum Center Founding Trustee, and President, American Himalayan Foundation
Over the course of her career, Erica Stone has worn many hats—fifth degree black belt, chef at Chez Panisse, and today, President of the American Himalayan Foundation. As the Foundation’s President, and particularly through the STOP Girl Trafficking initiative, Stone has had a profound impact on the lives of women and girls around the world. Each year, 20,000 girls from the poorest regions of Nepal are trafficked, which Stone attributes to three things: poverty, poverty, and poverty. By focusing on primary education, AHF lays a foundation that lifts girls out of poverty by giving them the skills, confidence, and respect they need to succeed. The STOP Girl Trafficking program started with 54 girls; today, 12,000 girls are safe in 500 schools across Nepal, on the path to a future full of hope. Learn more about STOP Girl Trafficking and the work of AHF here.


Dr. Laura Stachel, Big Ideas Winner and Founder, We Care Solar
In 2008, with funding from Big Ideas@Berkeley, Dr. Laura Stachel worked with an interdisciplinary team to design a low-maintenance solar electric system for a Nigerian hospital with a high maternal mortality rate. When surrounding health centers requested solar electricity in their labor rooms, the compact, rugged We Care Solar Suitcase was born. Ten years later, more than 3,000 We Care Solar Suitcases have served 1.4 million mothers and babies in 27 countries. These user-friendly, mobile and nearly maintenance-free suitcases, which take a couple of hours to install, have proved an important innovation in the fight against maternal mortality worldwide. Stachel’s goal is to “Light Every Birth,” working with Ministries of Health to ensure that every health center has reliable clean energy for childbirth. Learn more about Dr. Stachel and the global impact of her work here.


Alice Agogino, UC Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Blum Center Education Director
Professor Alice Agogino is a trailblazing mechanical engineer known for her work in bringing women and people of color into engineering, and her groundbreaking research into cutting-edge product design, intelligent learning and robotic systems, and sensor fusion, monitoring and diagnostic networks. As faculty Director at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Alice has supported the growth of the development engineering program to include over 50% women, and helps build the interdisciplinary skills needed for students to create actionable and impactful research that is transferable from the lab to the field at scale. Watch Alice in action here on development engineering and here in sustainable products and services.


Dr. Sophi Martin, Blum Center Innovation Director, and
Dr. Rachel Dzombak, Blum Center Innovation Fellow
Many institutions recognize the need to transform their business practices to keep pace with a rapidly evolving technology landscape, but lack the tools needed to unlock the innovation potential of their organization. Dr. Sophi Martin and Dr. Rachel Dzombak are leaders within the Blum Center’s growing education portfolio that supports social enterprises, innovative individuals, and the larger entrepreneurship/innovation community on campus. Through their design- and lean startup-focused teaching and advising, Martin and Dzombak inspire students to take on the great challenge of transforming deep-seated societal problems. Learn more about Martin’s work here, and Dzombak’s work here.


Isha Ray, UC Berkeley Professor and Blum Affiliated Faculty
There are few people in the world who know more about the intersection of gender equality and toilets than UC Professor Isha Ray. When UN Women asked Ray to determine whether or not there was greater gender equity in access to sanitation on account of the Millennium Development Goals, Ray didn’t know, but she made it her mission to find out. With her research partners and seed-funding from the USAID Development Impact Lab, Ray launched a new research project (TriSan) to understand the connections among sanitation, gender equality and human dignity. Throughout the course of her research, Ray found that sanitation programs are still being designed without fully acknowledging the social and biological needs of low-income women and girls. She has been advocating for the water and sanitation rights of women and girls globally ever since. In this moving Tedx Talk, Ray breaks down the relationship between dignity, gender, and toilets.

But First, Water

By Morgan Hillenbrand

On a typical day in the village of Mihingoni, Kenya, girls emerge at dawn, traveling down red clay paths against a backdrop of palm trees and corn stalk plants. The beauty of Mihingoni stands in contrast to the tough reality of their lives. These girls—some as young as six years old—are not in school. Today, like all days during the dry season, they will spend hours walking in search of that one element none of us can live without: water.

There is a saying in Swahili: “Maji Yaje Kwanza” which means “water is the first of many things”. The people of Mihingoni—most of whom are subsistence farmers—depend largely on rainwater for survival, but climate variability and long dry seasons continue to stunt crop yields. Low agricultural productivity decreases household income, and increases hunger. Lack of proper water, sanitation and hygiene leads to disease, and Kenya continues to have one of the worst under five mortality rates, globally. Families are forced to choose between sending their girls for water or sending them to school, and they choose water first. This limits the prospects for their future, and the cycle of poverty in Mihingoni continues. Until now.

Ashley Miller—an alumnus of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley—has spent the last five years working with the community of Mihingoni to design solutions that will increase their access to water. Miller first traveled to Mihingoni in 2013 when she and her classmate, Louisa Mwenda, took a seven hour drive from Nairobi to attend a family wedding.

“When I said ‘yes’ to that invitation I had no idea that the course of my life would change forever,” Ashley said. “Once I saw the impact lack of water was having on that community, I knew I had to get involved. I have been working with Louisa, her family, and the community on this issue ever since.”

Miller returned from Kenya, threw herself into fundraising, and one year and $21,000 later she was on a plane heading back to Kenya to implement the Maji Yaje Kwanza project. Determined to build a sustainable, community-led program, Miller and the team collaborated closely with Mihingoni Primary school, and asked local teachers to help her organize a community meeting where they could solicit and hear the thoughts, needs, and ideas of the community first-hand.

“I didn’t want to make any assumptions about what the community needed, or what the solution should be,” Miller said. “The meeting was entirely spoken in KiGiriama, which allowed those most affected by the project to fully express themselves and their needs. We wanted to put the people’s needs at the center of all of our work.”

With just over $20,000, Miller and her team were able to hire 200 people to build and install drip irrigation pipes at the school for a school garden, hand-washing sinks outside of the boys, girls, and teachers’ latrines, two drinking water taps and a water kiosk that serves the entire community. Two 10,000-liter water tanks were provided, ensuring water access even during periods of low rainfall. The crew also created a basin for soapy sink water to be recycled for cleaning latrines. And that wasn’t all.

Maji Yaji Kwanza collaborated with the local municipality to enact a pipeline expansion across 2.5 kilometers, which would build on the work of several World Bank water projects being implemented in the area. But project delays and variable water pressure brought additional challenges, and the provision of water was inconsistent. The community needed to connect a well to existing infrastructure to ensure water provision year-round. By the summer of 2017 the team had hired a geologist, completed a hydrogeological survey, and secured the necessary permits from the Kenyan government to build the well.

“We’ve accomplished so much, learned an incredible amount, and we’re just getting started,” Miller said. “News of our success has spread throughout the region, and that has raised people’s hopes and expectations. We are personally accountable to these communities, and that is what drives us to get this done.”

Maji Yaje Kwanza is currently fundraising with the goal of raising $10,000 to complete construction of the underground well and water pump. Once the project is completed, it will serve roughly 3,000 people.

“I want people to imagine a life where you can’t turn on a tap. Can’t turn on the shower, flush the toilet. A life where you look at your daughter and say, ‘you can’t go to school; we need you to go for water today’. People shouldn’t have to make those types of choices. This is a solvable problem, and we all need to be part of the solution.”

To contribute to Maji Yaje Kwanza through the official UC Berkeley crowdfunding campaign, visit .The current crowdfunding campaign cycle will be live until February 23 at 11:59 p.m. PST. To learn more about how The Blum Center is supporting students to change the world, visit

Welcome to the Global Poverty & Practice Minor!

The problem of poverty is far from a clear-cut issue. In the new age of globalization and technology, future generations must develop the skills needed to critically think about the complexities of inequality in order to overcome the world’s most challenging obstacles.

Since its formation 2007, the Global Poverty and Practice minor at the University of California Berkeley trains students to understand contemporary forms of poverty, wealth, and inequality through invaluable academic coursework and a worthwhile practice experience. GPP has become one of the largest, most popular minors on campus, with about 350 students regularly enrolled in the program.

At the core of the minor lies the “Practice Experience”, a fieldwork opportunity where students apply the theoretical approaches they learned in their coursework to aiding local and international populations by partnering with a non-governmental organization, government agencies, and other poverty or development groups around the world. In addition to utilizing theory in the field, students learn from the organizations on how they approach poverty in action.

GPP invites all students from different majors and backgrounds to gain a critical edge and a unique opportunity to supplement their field of study.

Priya Natarajan, a 4th year linguistics major, completed her Practice Experience in the summer of 2017 with KIVA, an international nonprofit dedicated to alleviating global poverty through microfinancing. According to her, the GPP curriculum allows for a diverse range of students from multiple disciplines to come together, which changes the perspective of each individual student and fosters a more holistic approach to learning about inequality.

“Sometimes you look at a problem and you’re like ‘Ok this is it. Let’s tackle it’, but we fail to consider a lot of different factors that are causing the problem in the first place […] I think GPP really pushes you to explore the different roots of the problem rather than just the surface level problem and I’ve really appreciated that and that’s really helped me in different parts of my life, not just in school,” said Natarajan.

Check out the GPP website to learn more about the minor! If you have any questions about the application process or the program in general, feel free to attend any GPP info sessions. Best of luck to our incoming freshmen and returning students. Go bears!

Deadline to apply for the minor is October 4th.