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Student’s Research Aims to Wash Away Childhood Disease

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Student’s Research Aims to Wash Away Childhood Disease

Residents of a Ugandan village are pictured with Schreyer Scholar Ce Zhang. Zhang visited Uganda as part of a research program that installed low-cost hand-washing taps in schools to reduce the spread of disease.

25 October 2011

In the United States, washing one’s hands is an ordinary, everyday habit. But after a visit to Uganda in the summer of 2009, Schreyer Honors College Scholar Ce Zhang learned that hand washing could mean the difference between life and death. Startled by the lack of hand washing facilities in the Ugandan village he visited, Ce, a senior majoring in biology in the Eberly College of Science, came up with the “Tippy Tap,” a device designed to increase hand washing among children.

Now, more than two years after his trip, the Tippy Tap’s success has made him the first undergraduate student presenter for Penn State’s “Research Unplugged” lecture series. On Wednesday, October 26, 2011 from noon to 1:00 p.m. at the Downtown State Theater, Ce will talk about his research and how he hopes to make a difference.

  1. What was your motivation for conducting this project in the first place?
    When I was a freshman, I went to Uganda and had an opportunity to intern with a nonprofit called the Uganda Village Project. I got to volunteer and live in rural villages where I had a deeply personal view into the lives of the people residing in these low-income areas. When I visited Ugandan schools, I saw that there was a lack of hand washing facilities at that school. When kids were using bathrooms, called latrines, they just went to the bathroom and went straight back to class afterward without washing their hands. When they were playing outside and got dirt on their hands, they’d just rub it on their shirt and go back to the school. I thought it was really startling, so when I went back to Penn State, I tried to think of ideas to address this problem.

  2. Why is hand washing so important, especially for children in Uganda?
    The whole purpose of hand washing is to prevent bacterial disease transmission. We wanted the Tippy Taps to increase hand-washing rates and potentially reduce stomach pain episodes, which is the ultimate clinical manifestation of diarrheal disease. Diarrheal disease is important because, even though it isn’t a problem in the United States, globally it’s the fourth leading cause of child mortality.

  3. How did you come up with the idea for your device, the Tippy Tap?
    I wanted to design an inexpensive hand washing station that you can put in these Ugandan schools or even in the home environment to increase access to hand washing. The Tippy Tap is a low-cost hand washing station, made out of commonly available materials. The device itself consists of a wooden frame and then there’s a plastic water jug attached to it. Then there’s string attached to the cap of the jug, and that’s attached to a pedal. The reason it’s called a Tippy Tap is because when you press on the pedal, the plastic jug tips over, and there’s a hole poked in the jug so that the water flows out. It basically functions as a water tap.

  4. How did your study prove that Tippy Taps are effective?
    We designed a study with eight Ugandan schools split into two groups: One of them was the intervention group; the other was the control group. In the intervention group, we implemented Tippy Taps plus hand washing education programs. In the control schools, we gave them only education. Then we recruited a total of 400 participants to take pre- and post-surveys. We found that in the intervention schools, the hand washing rates increased by over 90 percent. Even more potentially interesting, we also found out that the reported stomach pain episodes decreased by 60 to 70 percent. We also found out that around 50 percent of the children were able to independently build Tippy Taps in their own homes.

  5. Your research also showed that as many as 50 percent of the children were able to build Tippy Taps themselves. Why is this so important?
    It’s important to highlight that the Tippy Tap is such a simple device that even children ages 9 to 13 can make these devices by themselves. That shows that children themselves can be catalysts for implementing health-related change not only in their families, but potentially in their communities as well. We hope this idea will perpetuate throughout the community and spread throughout Uganda.

  6. What’s the most important thing that people in the U.S. should remember about hand washing?
    The main issue is whether you wash your hands in the first place. As long as you wash your hands with soap for maybe 10 seconds, it can take the bacteria off your hands. Even if you didn’t wash your hands for maybe a couple of days, it wouldn’t be a problem at all because there’s so many opportunities for you to wash your hands that sooner or later you will. But in other countries, the opportunities are not there. There’s not a lot of room for error in other countries. People need to take advantage of everything they take for granted in the U.S. I think it’s really important for students to at least have a chance to go abroad to see what other people have to go through that are more disadvantaged than we are.

  7. How has the Schreyer Honors College experience helped you?
    A main mission of the honors college is to build a global perspective, and I can’t stress this enough. I went to Uganda on a Schreyer Ambassador grant, and the Schreyer Summer Research grant supported our research. Without going to Uganda in the first place, there was no way we could have known that this problem exists, or even come up with a potential solution for this. So I can’t stress this enough: The only way you’re going to know about global issues is probably not going to come from the classroom; it’s actually going to come from going over there to see that specific issue occur. And when you realize that issue is there, that’ll probably motivate you even further to try to come up with a solution. I’m not saying that learning in the classroom isn’t important, but it’s also important to create more opportunities for students to go abroad so they can learn more about other cultures and learn more about the issues facing those people.

  8. What are your hopes for the future of the Tippy Tap?
    Our goal in speaking at Research Unplugged is to try to promote the idea of public scholarship, engaging other communities as well as garnering more support for our project in the long run. Now that we know this project works, we’re actually in talks with the Smeal College of Business here at Penn State, trying to establish the notion of Tippy Taps in America. So now we have a domestic focus. And it’s not just Tippy Taps now. We’re trying to build a sister school program connecting elementary schools in Pennsylvania, for example, to elementary schools in Uganda. These schools will communicate with one another for the idea of health promotion and also cultural awareness and international comprehension. So it’s a way to link two cultures, and our hope is that we’ll be able to generate financial support to these Ugandan schools through fundraising.

  9. What’s it like being the first-ever undergraduate presenter at Research Unplugged?
    I was pretty excited. It’s not the fact that we’re the first undergraduates to present—I mean, it’s definitely an honor. But it’s the fact that we’re able to get the opportunity to convey our message to a very diverse, wide audience of State College residents, faculty, and students. It’s a way for us to disseminate our knowledge and educate students on how to conduct student-based, independent research and the idea of global health in other countries.

  10. What can others do to help this initiative as far as hygiene awareness goes?
    I would encourage students here to go to our talk and learn more about what we do. I really hope Penn State students will be able to use our project as a means of doing more research-related scholarly projects. I would encourage people to get involved in other student organizations at Penn State that are implementing health-related projects in other countries, trying to improve their health outcomes. Just try to address these problems in a scholarly way, on an academic level. It’s not just about going into another country and spending a week there. The main idea is to be able to implement a project that can exist there for a long period of time, and most importantly, to be able to show quantitatively through research, that the project has an effect. Scholarly engagement is my biggest point, not only domestically but also internationally.


By Christine Kim ‘11
College Relations Intern
Schreyer Honors College

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