Abstract Background Diarrheal disease is a major cause of mortality and morbidity in low and middle income countries with children being disproportionately affected. Project SHINE (Sanitation & Hygiene INnovation in Education) is a grassroots participatory science education and social entrepreneurship model to engage youth and the wider community in the development of sustainable strategies to improve sanitation and hygiene. Methods Based in rural and remote Tanzania, this pilot study engaged pastoralist high-school students and communities in the development and evaluation of culturally and contextually relevant strategies to improve sanitation and hygiene. Using a train-the-trainer approach, key activities included teacher workshops, school-based lessons, extra-curricular activities, community events and a One Health sanitation science fair which showcased projects related to water, sanitation and hygiene in relation to human and animal health. The process and outcome of the study were evaluated through qualitative interviews and focus group discussions with diverse project participants, as well as pre- and post- questionnaires completed by students on knowledge, attitudes and practices concerning sanitation and hygiene. Results The questionnaire results at baseline and follow-up showed statistically significant improvements on key measures including a decrease in unhygienic behaviors, an increase in the perceived importance of handwashing and intention to use the toilet, and increased communication in the social network about the importance of clean water and improved sanitation and hygiene practices, however there were no significant changes in sanitation related knowledge. Qualitative data highlighted strong leadership emerging from youth and enthusiasm from teachers and students concerning the overall approach in the project, including the use of participatory methods. There was a high degree of community engagement with hundreds of community members participating in school-based events. Sanitation science fair projects addressed a range of pastoralist questions and concerns regarding the relationship between water, sanitation and hygiene. Several projects, such as making soap from local materials, demonstrate potential as a sustainable strategy to improve health and livelihoods in the long-term. Conclusions The Project SHINE model shows promise as an innovative capacity building approach and as an engagement and empowerment strategy for youth and communities to develop locally sustainable strategies to improve sanitation and hygiene.