Thanks to a joint project by Bellarmine, WaterStep and the Louisville Rotary Club, people around the world will have better instructions for how to clean contaminated water. The unusual collaboration came in conjunction with a service-learning trip that Bellarmine communication students made to Costa Rica in May.
The trip was part of a master’s level international technical communication course taught by Assistant Professor Shawn Apostel. Their challenge: Travel to Costa Rica, learn about WaterStep’s water-purification efforts there and help create instruction manuals that will work in any language and culture. Anybody who’s ever tried to program a wristwatch or build a desk based on instructions that were translated from another language will appreciate the challenge.
WaterStep is a Louisville non-profit that has been providing safe-water technologies around the globe for 20 years. The organization provides water filters, chlorine generators, health education and well-repair know-how, all of which are especially critical after natural disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal. They also provide excellent documentation for using their innovations, written in clear, concise English.
But what if the user doesn’t read English? What if the user doesn’t read at all? “We wanted to find a way to make the documentation more international-friendly,” Dr. Apostel said.
So the class researched technical- and international-communication best practices and worked to advise WaterStep on a manual that anybody, anywhere, could understand. That’s no small task with a complicated device like a chlorine generator.
“We asked, how do we make something so complicated clear without using words at all?” said Dr. Apostel. “We used Ikea as an example. They do such a great job and save so much money by creating a manual that doesn’t have to be translated into multiple languages.”
But before they could propose specific changes, the group traveled to Orosi, Costa Rica, to see how the chlorine generator was being used in the field. “We wanted to go in-country and set one up so we’d understand,” Dr. Apostel said.
The immersion was eye-opening, he said. “Costa Rica does purify its water, but often it gets contaminated before it gets to people. The water looks like good water. People don’t realize it’s contaminated. Many people around the world just feel like diarrhea is a normal part of life. They don’t realize that you can have life without it – that this is something we can fix.”
The class traveled to various destinations in Costa Rica to see how WaterStep’s systems work, what it’s like to install them, and how the instruction manuals are used. Back in Louisville, the students studied ways to improve the manuals for cross-cultural and cross-language use. Pictures alone weren’t enough—the group wanted to overcome as many barriers as possible.
For example, not everyone reads left to right, meaning that someone reading right to left might actually disassemble the device. Because most cultures read top to bottom, the class recommended reorganizing the manuals accordingly.
Another recommendation was to staple the information rather than put it into book form, because some cultures open books from the opposite side. Other recommendations took into consideration cultural sensitivities. “If you need to show a hand, show the right hand because the left hand is offensive in some cultures,” said Dr. Apostel. “Likewise, don’t use OK signs. The Facebook thumbs-up sign is very offensive in some countries. The WaterStep logo – a foot – is a wonderful logo, but for international use, just use the name because the foot is offensive in some cultures. It’s also important to use gender-neutral figures.”
WaterStep hopes to continue working with Bellarmine to revise the manuals, said founder and CEO Mark Hogg.
“A lot of what we do is education. Technology only plays a portion of that. If technology were going to solve the word’s water problems, that would have already been done. But we know that education coupled with the appropriate technology solution is what makes success,” he said.
“And, of course, you’ve got these cultural relationships. So to have a group like Shawn and his Bellarmine students help us communicate effectively is really important. We want to be able to teach from the U.S. as much as possible, via the Internet, via video conferencing and our educational packages. So a written piece that can be read anywhere can be a really effective model. We just love our relationship with Bellarmine.”
The trip itself had a profound impact on the students. “It really made you feel blessed coming back and to see what you have that other people don’t—and we take those things for granted,” Shelby Chism, a Master of Arts in Communication student from Louisville.
“It was a very positive and powerful experience for our students,” said Dr. Apostel. “They were shocked that this is reality for people. And leaving that place a little better—a hundred less kids will have diarrhea now. That’s nice! Our students took their vacation time and did this. I think that speaks to Bellarmine’s mission and what our students are like.”
Jim Welp ’81 | firstname.lastname@example.org