Picture of James Harper, PE

James Harper, PE

Educator, Engineer, Researcher


Hi! I'm James Harper, an educator and researcher in civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. In short, I'm motivated by what can change the world. Trained as an engineer, experienced as a STEM educator and a mechanical design engineer, and currently working to improve engineering design using behavioral science, I work to improve public health in rural low-income contexts and educate youth in the western world about related topics. I've worked primarily on infrastructure development projects in rural Cambodia, Bangladesh, and India, where I research how human behavior affects fecal sludge management. I'm a registered Professional Mechanical Engineer and have taught STEM for over 10 years. I'm from Gilroy, CA but lived in San Diego, CA for many years and now live in Broomfield, CO. Outside of work, he's volunteered extensively for mountain rescue and enjoys hiking and travelling with his partner, Devon, and rescue pit bull, Canela.


The power of effective teaching is only achieved when students learn both deeply and broadly about a topic. The former is typically accomplished in engineering programs by teaching technical skills, but the latter must consider how engineering fits within the systems they rely on: social, economic, cultural, and environmental, among others. I find the challenge of teaching broadly about topics that directly affect engineering while also teaching deeply about key aspects to be both stimulating and rewarding for my students and me: they retain more, enjoy the learning process, and are better prepared to solve real-world problems, all while my teaching skills are continually tested to match student learning styles. Based on my experiences as an engineer working globally, I push this teaching challenge farther by grounding my career in educating the next generation of engineers to be both global in their focus and understand aspects outside of engineering, particularly the social sciences. It is from this global perspective that engineering requires a breadth of education that extends beyond traditional engineering topics and requires innovative teaching to succeed in creating engineers with a global perspective - humanitarian engineers.

Since my early career, I have strived to teach engineering effectively to both my students and colleagues. My career as an educator began with tutoring and teaching 5th-grade physics while obtaining my MS/BS in Mechanical Engineering. After working as a professional design engineer in aerospace, medical devices and consumer products for 6 years, I taught high-school math, physics and self-developed project-based engineering courses full-time for 3 years, specializing in teaching students with learning difficulties. My lessons were frequently inspired by the creativity required in my engineering career, which energized my students and improved their learning. To further my teaching career, I soon returned to graduate school to earn my PhD with the goal of teaching and researching at university as a professor of engineering. Influenced by my experiences managing development projects with Engineers Without Borders in rural India, where behavior and economics strong influenced project outcomes, I decided to pursue a degree in civil engineering with a research focus on how behavior and economics affects engineered systems. I have since worked as a teaching assistant in both labs and classrooms for technical and design-based courses, including Mechanical Systems for Buildings and Fluid Dynamics & Heat Transfer. I have also guest-lectured in many graduate and undergraduate civil and architectural engineering courses, including Sustainable Community Development and A Systems Approach to Global Engineering, about my experiences working globally. I always strive to create an enabling environment for my students that fosters self-reliance and excitement to solve practical problems.

My teaching pedagogy rests strongly on experiential learning to engage students. My lessons typically integrate both technical and “soft” skills in the cognitive and affective domains to provide a well-rounded understanding of a topic. My lessons always incorporate practical examples, and most are structured around student projects that include real-world design and analysis challenges, encouraging the combination of students’ creativity and technical skills. For example, in one of my project-based engineering classes, students designed, built and maintained an Earth Bench made of non-recyclable trash, like used concrete, and natural building materials and techniques, like adobe. The students learned about the engineering design process, construction and materials by using them in a real-world task but also thought about a familiar product (a bench) in a new way (constructed with non-standard materials). I plan to continue developing similar activities that immerse students in the humanitarian-engineering context via practical challenges that teach students a breadth of humanitarian-engineering topics along with a depth of student-selected topics. I also plan to incorporate service learning into my lessons, ideally via my partnerships across academia and with local development practitioners, like iDE and Engineers Without Borders USA, to improve the practicality of my teaching and tailor my lessons to students’ focus of study. Coupled with experiential learning, I firmly believe in stimulating my classroom with a diversity of perspectives and welcome students from varied socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. To further this goal, I try to incorporate classroom debates of policies, practices, and theories that affect humanitarian-engineering challenges to promote critical examination of trends in these topics.

To develop my teaching skills, I regularly take advantage of professional development workshops. I have pursued a postgraduate Certificate in College Teaching under CU Boulder’s Graduate Teacher Program, where I completed training on student learning styles and tools, teaching pedagogies, diversity, and using technology in the classroom. I also plan to teach as an Instructor of Record in Fall 2020, when I will also participate in video-taped teaching consultations of my lessons to improve my teaching and diversity strategies, and better address different student learning styles.

Achieving effective teaching can only occur when student learning is measured accurately and changes are made to future teaching methods. To achieve this, I clarify all student learning goals at the beginning of each course by creating and reviewing a detailed syllabus with the class and periodically referring back to it throughout the semester, discussing any problems that arise. I tend to favor formative assessments throughout the semester, including short written reflections on readings for homework and in-class discussions led by a different student each week, and then summative assessments in the form of multi-week projects that engage students creatively, logistically and technically while prescribing work products via a rubric. I am fastidious about recording student learning outcomes, particularly after having lead a high school’s ABET accreditation. I also always administer a mid-semester survey, where I ask students to provide feedback on the class and my teaching so that I adjust my teaching to meet their learning styles and address any issues.

My experiences as an engineer, particularly in low-income countries, and as a teacher have prepared me to teach a wide range of STEM courses. I am comfortable and experienced at teaching most core undergraduate mechanical engineering courses, including statics, dynamics, mechanics of materials, and senior design; many civil and architectural engineering courses, including building, HVAC, water treatment, and sanitation systems; computer programming in Python, R and Visual Basic; math; and physics. Having completed a Certificate in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado, I understand the strengths and potential areas for improvement in humanitarian-engineering programs and am excited to help such programs grow. With my strong background in engineering and development theory and practice, I am well suited to teach EDNS577 Advanced Engineering and Sustainable Community Development, EDNS580 Humanitarian Engineering and Science Capstone Practicum, EDNS590 Risks in Humanitarian Engineering and Science, and many CEEN and MEGN courses. I also plan to offer a special topic for EDNS598 that draws from my research and teaches students how to describe the decision-making processes of users of an engineered service or product and include those facts in design. I envision developing new and improving existing curricula in partnership with current faculty to continue to elevate both Mines and myself as preeminent contributors to humanitarian engineering.

I also look forward to mentoring and advising students outside of the classroom. Student-focused development organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA), are crucial to encourage engineers to work on humanitarian engineering problems, and I plan to continue supporting and advising these organizations. I continue to work as a professional engineer with EWB-USA on various projects in rural India and have advised many student-chapter projects. I have also mentored two undergraduate students and four graduate students while pursuing my doctorate and look forward to mentoring more at Mines. Setting up open and honest communication while providing a safety net of consultation and direction can allow my mentees to be both self-reliant and creative without becoming overwhelmed by challenges. I believe that my career experiences enable me to connect students from various disciplines to global perspectives and organizations. I also look forward to leading departmental committees to provide service to the department and program.

My teaching has been praised by managers, colleagues and students over the years for my innovation and adaptability to suit student learning needs. For example, the head of school where I taught advanced-placement physics, calculus and computer programming reviewed me as a “natural teacher that inspires his students with his approachable enthusiasm and very positive attitude”. The students of those classes also rated me 4.7 out of 5 overall for my clarity and respect for my students, and students from courses at CU Boulder noted that I “ensure that students know everything about a subject before they leave the classroom”, “encourage discussion and listening to the different perspectives of everyone in the class”, and am “always willing to help a student”.

By refocusing engineering education through a global lens, I believe that students of the Colorado School of Mines’ Humanitarian Engineering program will be particularly apt to solve the world’s challenges of development. I believe that my teaching pedagogy; experiences as an engineer, teacher and researcher; and interests in humanitarian engineering can continue to elevate Mines as an institution that leads future engineers towards smart humanitarian engineering practice.


This section is currently being updated.


To improve public health via better engineering design of services and products, my research seeks to produce innovative practical contributions to rural sanitation, particularly fecal sludge management (FSM), by investigating how behavior, society, and economy interact with engineered systems. To date, I have used quantitative surveying methods, discrete choice experimentation, and qualitative analysis of interviews and focus groups to address critical practical gaps in understanding rural FSM. Building upon this research, I seek to deepen my study of rural FSM decision-making with a focus on low-income communities in Southeast Asia. I also aim to extend my research portfolio into studying the effectiveness and efficiency of different teaching methods to expose undergraduate engineering students to international development and encourage them to work as humanitarian engineers after university. Three questions guide my research:

  1. How can we design better FSM services in rural low-income communities by understanding the decision-making processes of pit emptiers?
  2. How can we design better FSM products in rural low-income communities by understanding the decision-making processes of latrine owners when pits fill?
  3. What teaching methods most effectively and most efficiently expose undergraduate students to humanitarian engineering topics and encourage them to work in this field?

FSM in Rural Low-income Communities

With more than 2.7 billion people using pit latrines in rural low-income communities globally, ensuring consistent functionality of these systems is critical to mitigate serious health and environmental consequences (1). Because latrines only contain and store human waste, use must cease when a pit fills until the pit is emptied or an additional pit installed. Emptying a pit or installing a new pit can help safely manage fecal sludge by preventing human contact with pathogenic fecal sludge and reversion to open defecation. Unfortunately, services that safely empty a pit or install a new pit (henceforth “FSM services”) are frequently unregulated, unavailable locally, or expensive to rural latrine owners (2). Thus, FSM service providers tend to develop their own pit-emptying methods that prioritize convenience and cost-reduction (3), and rural latrine owners tend to choose cheaper, unsafe methods that endanger the pit emptier, community members, and/or the environment via exposure to fecal sludge (4). Despite an obvious and imminent need for safe FSM in rural communities, most studies have focused on technologies and economics while largely ignoring service-provider- and household-level decision-making processes (5,6). Building on existing research that describes how the decision-making processes strongly affect the adoption, use, and maintenance of sanitation systems (7–9), my research aims to provide practical evidence to achieve safely managed sanitation in rural low-income communities by describing how rural FSM service providers and households make decisions when pits fill.

Decision-making of Service Providers

To achieve safely managed sanitation in rural low-income contexts, we must understand 1) what service providers do when pits fill, and 2) what motivates them to use these methods. Answering these questions will provide a basis to 3) design better methods, business models, and/or equipment to achieve safe rural FSM. My research on this topic to date has included a qualitative study of rural pit emptiers in four divisions of Bangladesh. Working in partnership with iDE, I developed training materials and trained interviewers that lived locally and spoke local languages. In total, 45 semi-structured interviews and 30 focus groups allowed us to characterize what methods and business models rural pit emptiers use, what factors influence their decisions, and what aspirations they have for their businesses and FSM service provision more broadly. Regionally contextualized information will be published in mid-2020 to aid in the design of improved FSM services, business models, and training programs; identify leverage points to mitigate unsafe practices; provide evidence for local governments to subsidize critical equipment and training; and help mitigate stigma associated with FSM service provision. This aspect of my research has the most potential to help achieve safely managed sanitation in rural low-income communities because of the high frequency and broad geographic areas that pit emptiers typically operate within. Thus, taking advantage of USAID recently prioritizing rural FSM and applying for funding under their DIV or PEER programs, I plan to continue studying how to improve FSM service provision in rural Bangladesh by understanding the preferences and values of rural pit emptiers. I also plan to extend my research of FSM service provision into Cambodia and Ghana within the next year using both qualitative and quantitatives methods. This body of work will continue to support the ongoing development of national FSM guidelines in rural Bangladesh and Cambodia, and future research in rural FSM globally by making all questionnaires, interview and focus group guides, and datasets available publicly.

Decision-making of Households

To achieve safely managed sanitation in rural low-income contexts, we must also understand the household perspective of FSM, including 1) what rural household do when pits fill, and 2) what motivates them to use these methods. Answering these questions will provide a basis to 3) design better services; emptying and/or payment methods; and/or products to achieve safe rural FSM. To date on this topic, I have conducted four studies, all framed by theories from behavioral science and economics. In rural Cambodia, I conducted three studies using quantitative methods and trained more than 30 interviewers, who completed over 3000 household surveys of three different designs that described all components of latrine owners’ decision-making processes when deciding how to manage a full pit. One study also used a discrete choice experiment, a first for rural FSM, to determine what latrine owners are willing to pay for different types of FSM services (e.g., smell reduction, pathogen treatment). In rural Bangladesh, I conducted one study using qualitative methods and yielded formative results for the country. In the future, I plan to expand my research of household-level FSM decision-making into other countries to provide a basis for improving FSM service and product design with a context-focused lens. I also plan to improve upon my use of economic research methods, including discrete choice theory, to regionally describe willingness to pay for FSM services and products. Lastly, I plan to compare the results of my studies across countries to identify commonalities and provide lessons learned from countries that have more developed rural FSM infrastructure (e.g., Bangladesh) to those with less developed infrastructure (e.g., Cambodia).

Educating Undergraduate Engineers in Humanitarian Engineering

From my own experience, engineers educated in the USA are rarely exposed to humanitarian-engineering topics like sanitation in low-income communities. My learning about humanitarian engineering took a lot of luck and adventurous choices after university; however, I believe that those experiences should be part of the standard undergraduate engineering curriculum. While many universities include humanitarian-engineering topics in their programs, they remain relatively unusual and underdeveloped. To bring the humanitarian-engineering perspective into view for all undergraduate engineers, I plan to research what teaching methods yield the most effective and efficient exposure for undergraduate engineering students to international development and encourage them to work in this field after university. My teaching experience has taught me that project-based experiences yield the most comprehensive and impactful understanding of a topic, and I expect learning about humanitarian engineering to be similar. However, identifying which topics (e.g., USA-focused or global), what types of projects (e.g., hypothetical in-class or real in-world), where students work (e.g., at the university or at the project’s location), and the duration of the project or site visits yield the best student learning outcomes remain to be identified and is of critical importance to teach humanitarian engineering at the undergraduate level. I intend to identify the best way to teach humanitarian engineering to undergraduate students. My career path has not allowed me to research this topic yet; however, it has been a persistent goal of mine for the past five years and remains a primary goal for my career. Funded perhaps by the NSF RFE or BPE program, this research would determine how best to stimulate undergraduate engineering students to learn about and work in the field of humanitarian engineering so that the brightest minds can be set on solving our world’s most critical public-health issues, including access to safely managed sanitation, potable water, safe housing, nutritious food, and sustainable power.


  1. Strande L. The Global Situation. In: Fecal Sludge Management: Systems Approach for Implementation and Management. London, UK: IWA Publishing; 2014. p. 1–14.
  2. Hussain F, Clasen T, Akter S, Bawel V, Luby SP, Leontsini E, et al. Advantages and limitations for users of double pit pour-flush latrines: a qualitative study in rural Bangladesh. Bmc Public Health. 2017 May 25;17:515.
  3. Harper J, Bielefeldt A, Javernick-Will A, Asaduzzaman M, Karki S. Why Pit Emptiers in Rural Bangladesh Do What They Do: Decision-making in Fecal Sludge Management. UNC Water and Health Conference; 2019; UNC Water and Health Conference.
  4. Still D, Foxon K. Tackling the challenges of full pit latrines. Water Research Commission, South Africa; 2012.
  5. Strande L, Brdjanovic D. Faecal sludge management: Systems approach for implementation and operation [Internet]. IWA Publishing; 2014 [cited 2018 Jun 2]. Available from: www.eawag.ch/en/department/sandec/publications/faecal-sludge-management-fsm-book/
  6. Jenkins MW, Cumming O, Cairncross S. Pit Latrine Emptying Behavior and Demand for Sanitation Services in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Mar;12(3):2588–611.
  7. Coffey D, Spears D, Vyas S. Switching to sanitation, Understanding latrine adoption in a representative panel of rural Indian households. 2017;
  8. Jenkins MW, Scott B. Behavioral indicators of household decision-making and demand for sanitation and potential gains from social marketing in Ghana. Soc Sci Med 1982. 2007 Jun;64(12):2427–42.
  9. Sample ED, Evans BE, Camargo-Valero MA, Wright NG, Leton TG. Understanding the drivers of sanitation behaviour in riverine communities of Niger Delta, Nigeria: the case of Odi and Kaiama communities. J Water Sanit Hyg Dev. 2016 Sep 1;6(3):491–9.


Project 1

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Project 2

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This section is currently being updated.


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