“Lives, Not Grades” addresses innovation in global challenges

Viterbi lecturer Daniel Druhora released a documentary on his class’s hands-on learning in Greece.

“It was never really a class. It was a challenge to come together with a group of young people and dare to take on something big, and succeed.”

That is what Michael Cesar, USC class of ’19 and former student of Daniel Druhora, had to say about the course that was the central focus of the newly released documentary, “Lives, Not Grades”

Druhora is a part-time lecturer of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Viterbi who not only taught the class, but also wrote, directed and produced “Lives, Not Grades.” The film is a collaboration between the Viterbi School of Engineering and the United Engineering Foundation, and is the first feature documentary produced by Viterbi to get public television distribution on PBS.

In “Lives, Not Grades,” Druhora and his team of students from USC traveled to the Moria Camp in Greece, also known as “the worst refugee camp on earth,” Their mission was to design and build prototypes of innovations that are able to improve the lives of refugees fleeing wars and natural disasters.

Before arriving in Greece, the students were split up into five groups and tasked with creating prototypes to address the needs of refugees, and then traveling to two refugee camps to test their newly created prototypes.

The students traveled to refugee camps such as Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos, a camp whose constantly fluctuating population reached 30,000 people when students were last there.

The course was co-founded by four instructors: Burcin Becerik-Gerber, David Gerber, Brad Cracchiola and Druhora. Druhora said that his inspiration for taking the students to these refugee camps was to get young, fresh ideas on tough problems like the refugee crisis in Greece.

“You know, it’s the key to be able to look at the world and ask fresh new questions,” said Druhora. “People can say, well, young people are ill equipped and experienced and they don’t have the degree, they don’t have the finances, the connections, the name yet, maybe that’s exactly what’s needed.”

Once the students and instructors arrived, they soon realized they shared a great deal with the refugees, some of whom were also students whose studies had been interrupted by war and unrest.

“You [the students] are the first to come here and listen to us and that is a strong indication that the state does not really care about the local communities just to say it bluntly,” a native islander is heard telling the students in the film,”The conditions they live in, you cannot describe them, they’re awful.”

After returning to Los Angeles, the students got to work on their prototypes, designing a water backpack; a portable and reusable shower; an air insulated jacket; and more. Of the groups, the two most successful designs were Safar, a camp-specific information app, and Duet, a micro philanthropy platform that notifies people when they’re online shopping that refugees need the things they’re buying, too. The experiences that the students gained on the trip were the primary compass that guided their creations.

“[The app] definitely wouldn’t have happened without [the trip],” says Michael Cesar class of ’19 and co-founder of Duet, “It was being there, and seeing”

As of January 2021, the students involved in the project launched 5 social innovation start-ups: Duet, Safar, Torch, Key and Frontida, all of which had their roots with the Viterbi course.

Druhora says he hopes Viterbi’s trip and his film serve as an inspiration for similar endeavors of a similar nature.

“What I hope that happens is, is this,” said Druhora. “That universities understand that they have a place to address, to teach, to teach, equip and teach students how to deal with global challenges and to innovate for societal diligence.”

The film has been picked up by PBS, and will next air on Wednesday, May 5 at 8:00pm PST on Link TV.