Engineered Across Oceans

By this time next year, Jenna O’Brien should already have several months under her belt as a U.S. Peace Corp volunteer, working as a water sanitation and hygiene education educator in Panama. But she’s already an old hand at certain parts of the volunteer experience. The Virginia Tech engineering major already has nearly four years experience with another humanitarian organization: Engineers Without Borders.
The organization is comprised of nearly 150 student chapters and another 150 or so professional chapters that organize engineering projects. Until early 2018, nongovernmental organizations that work in developing and disaster-stricken countries requested EWB’s help with projects. Earlier this year, EWB-USA, which oversees the organization’s structure, announced a change in the way it supports projects. The organization will now work on projects only within 35 specific countries to avoid displacing work for engineers in countries with a sufficient number of in-country engineers.
O’Brien joined EWB nearly the moment she arrived at Virginia Tech as a freshman. In fact, one of the main reasons she chose her majors—biological systems engineering and Spanish, with a minor in green engineering—was because she one day wanted to hold a sustainable engineering job. She also wanted to investigate how sustainable engineering groups function behind the scenes. For the 2017-2018 O’Brien serves as president of the Virginia Tech EWB chapter, made up of 30 to 60 students “depending on the number who show up,” she says.
As with all EWB chapters, student members are responsible for researching and planning their projects, consulting with professional engineers and NGOs, and raising funds and writing grants to cover project materials and travel costs. Student members serve as co-leaders, presidents, treasurers, directors of fundraisers, and in other traditional roles, O’Brien says.
Earlier in her EWB involvement, O’Brien traveled to a community outside Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic to help with a water distribution project. But the small community of service workers catering to the tourists who stay in nearby hotels was a largely migratory bunch—traveling to their homes in Haiti or to other cities within the Dominican Republic for weekends or quitting their jobs altogether after a number of weeks or months to return home. For that reason, the project failed to get the community support needed, O’Brien says.
Virginia Tech now hosts three projects in Uganda, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The latter aims to improve the sustainable wastewater management system of CEFONMA, a boarding school located in the Xix, El Quiche region. The school now disposes of waste by pouring it into pits dug around campus and capped with concrete when full. That method limits the school’s usable land and could contaminate nearby water sources, says Helen Chen, a senior Virginia Tech civil engineering major, and head of public relations for the school’s EWB chapter.
Until the problem is fixed, the school can’t expand, an issue because Guatemala doesn’t offer schooling past the sixth grade. The boarding school is many students only opportunity for continuing education, with many students walking eight to 12 hours to get to campus, she adds.
O’Brien hasn’t traveled again after her trip to the Dominican Republic, but her time in EWB taught her many career and life skills, she says.
“When you’re in engineering, you can get caught up on an assignment. But EWB encourages you to think of the people, to keep things in perspective,” she says. “I feel engineers have the responsibility to help people improve the quality of their lives.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chen has discovered the importance of communication when it comes to fundraising and recruiting new members as well as during chapter meetings and while relaying information back and forth with NGOs and those in the field.
“Communication is important because sometimes the communities we work with don’t see the design process in the same way we do as students who are learning about it,” Chen says.
The in-country-based workers on one particular project weren’t exact in their drilling calculations and didn’t see the need for other student-requested information, she says.
“We needed aquifer types and hydrological reports and they just wanted to drill test holes and go from there,” Chen says. “We had to be able to explain to them why we needed the information and why we designed it in a certain way, because ultimately want it to be the best project it can be.”
Those lessons ring true for Harvard University EWB chapter member Nicole Trenchard, a junior and a mechanical engineering major. She’s written technical reports, made CAD models and helped with fundraising during her two-year stint at her school’s EWB chapter.
“We joke about all the blue font on reports,” she says. The blue font indicates areas flagged by the professional engineers or faculty mentor. “Some of us have never had a manager before.”
Max Fite is project coordinator for EWB at the University of Minnesota, which, at 100 members—about 80 of them active at any one time, is probably one of the biggest chapters in the country, he says. Though the organization, like the other student chapters, is student led, professional engineers must review designs to make sure they’re technically sound.
Like the other chapters, his organization raises 95 percent of the funds needed for its projects. The chapter usually needs to bring in between $15,000 to $35,000 annually.
“Anything extra is a bonus,” he says.
This year the chapter has raised $55,000 for its two projects: a water system installation in Paraxaj, Guatemala; and water, irrigation, and agricultural projects in Filakit, Ethiopia. The money comes from grants from University of Minnesota and EWB USA—the parent organization—and from individual and corporate donations.
Eva Hansen, a junior at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., summarizes the sentiments of all the students interviewed for this article. She traveled to the Dominican Republic in January 2016 to assess her EWB chapter’s ongoing water-treatment-and-distribution system project at a local school
“I’ve really seen the impact individuals can have on issues of greater significance. For a group of undergraduates with professional advisor to successful implement a system in a different country, that shows we’re all capable of a lot more than we believe we are,” she says.
Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in St. Paul who specializes in engineering and science.
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