Tackling Real-World Problems With the Poorest of the Poor

Stanford students pitch their projects at the Design for Extreme Affordability expo. Please ignore the clothespins and duct tape.

July 13, 2018

The Extreme Expo. Credit: Patrick Beaudouin

At their annual expo, students in the Design for Extreme Affordability course display products designed to improve the lives of thousands — perhaps millions — of poor people. | Photo by Patrick Beaudouin

Amid the buzz in the studios housing the Design for Extreme Affordability course, Julia Osterman enthusiastically shows off something often taken for granted: a refrigerator.

This refrigerator, though, stands out: It’s a solar-powered, collapsible model designed for small-business people in Uganda who sell chilled drinks in areas where electricity and ice are scarce. With conventional refrigerators there costing as much as $700 apiece, Osterman, who’s pursuing her MBA with a joint MS in environmental science, envisions one built at a cost of just $300.

“We think we’ve done it,” she says.

That “we” refers to her project partners from across campus: Madelyn Boslough, Brittany Presten, and Brett Salazar, students in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and medicine, respectively. The students, who call their refrigerator “ReadyChill,” presented their project on June 7 at the 2018 Design Expo, the culmination of the popular class widely known as Extreme. Under faculty directed by Stanford GSB lecturer Stuart Coulson, the two-quarter course embraces a multidisciplinary approach to effecting change.

 Julia Osterman presenting ReadyChill to an expo attendee. Credit: Patrick Beaudouin

Julia Osterman presents her team’s ReadyChill refrigerator to an attendee at the Design for Extreme Affordability course’s annual product expo.| Photo by Patrick Beaudouin

The solar-powered refrigerator was one of 10 projects developed during this past year’s iteration of the course, which teaches students to design products and services addressing issues in developing nations — hence the emphasis on “affordability.” About 40 students enroll in the class, which is housed in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the d.school) and offered jointly by Stanford GSB and the School of Engineering.

At the annual expo, students set up prototypes and demonstrations in the d.school’s cavernous loft space, working under edgy-looking exposed beams and ducting. Workspaces are littered with Sharpies, duct tape, clothespins, pipe cleaners, photos, and other creativity-inducing clutter. Vertical surfaces in the studio are covered with hundreds of neon-colored Post-it notes bearing such inspirational messages as “anyone can do anything and everything” and “limits don’t exist for innovators,” notions the teams appear to take to heart.

The students behind the ReadyChill refrigerator, for instance, decided that their cooler didn’t need to maintain the conventional refrigeration temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit and instead designed it to stay at 45 degrees, cool enough for bottled drinks. That innovation lowered the refrigerator’s energy consumption and reduced its weight.

With its strong emphasis on collaboration, the Extreme course invites students from across campus to apply, helping teams benefit from diversity of expertise and interest. In a typical year, 10 to 12 of the 40 students are MBAs, 15 are engineers, and 5 are medical students. The rest come from other Stanford disciplines such as earth sciences, education, and international policy.

Workspaces are littered with Sharpies, duct tape, clothespins, pipe cleaners, photos, and other creativity-inducing clutter.

Each team in turn collaborates with an existing organization — either a social enterprise or a nonprofit — to learn about real-world needs in developing areas. The ReadyChill team partners with Fenix International, which sells solar-power systems for homes in Uganda and Zambia. Through the partnerships and their hands-on projects, students use design thinking to bring a product or service from concept to market: Identify a need by developing empathy for users, create a prototype, field-test it rigorously, and develop a bulletproof, real-world business model and implementation plan. Most students hope to eventually implement their ideas through the partner organizations, new student-led ventures, or other organizations.

In the 15 years since the Extreme course began, it has helped to develop more than 140 products and services, reaching more than 80 million people in 31 countries.

A few of the other projects presented at this year’s Expo:

Happy Hands

Allowing schoolchildren in India to wash their hands on-site, Happy Hands is a portable hand-washing station assembled from common off-the-shelf parts, including plastic sheeting, a folding metal rack, and simple piping. Aiming to teach good hygiene habits, schools without running water will often send students to off-campus taps to wash their hands, but many of them scatter and don’t return to class, says Happy Hands team member Juliana Perl, a senior in engineering who specializes in product design. The team’s partner is the nonprofit organization Splash, which installs commercial-grade water filtration systems in developing areas.


CleanKit trains health workers how to correctly sterilize surgical equipment in order to avoid post-operative infection. The student team designed materials both to teach nurses about infections and to help them in turn teach other staff. Currently, nurses receive little or no training in preventing infections, said Josh Guild, a medical student. Because hospitals and clinics in developing areas aren’t likely to have video screens or projectors, the team designed flip charts that explain basic information about bacteria and viruses and show how diseases spread, such as through standing water or on unsterilized equipment. The CleanKit team collaborates with Lifebox, a nonprofit promoting safety in surgery in the developing world.


Earthen flooring, made of sand and varnish, is a healthy and affordable alternative to dirt floors that spread water-borne disease in homes in Rwanda. Testing the sand for clay content to check if it’s suitable for flooring is a crucial step in the construction process. If the sand contains too much or too little clay, floors can warp or crack when they cure. Students created something called Sand.Trifuge, a tool resembling a centrifuge made of plastic and string. Samples of sand fit inside the device, which the user spins to separate sand from clay and determine if the proportion is acceptable. The process takes five minutes, compared to the three hours that current tests require, said Daniel Hills-Bunnell, a senior majoring in product design. “We hope to keep bad sand from getting into the home,” said Hills-Bunnell, whose team works with EarthEnable, a social enterprise selling sanitary earthen flooring in Rwanda.

— Louise Lee

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