Across Borders: Young Engineers Solve Problems and Build Trust

Taylor Dupre is a senior at Northern Illinois University studying mechanical engineering with an emphasis on sustainable energy. He’s also helping to build a ceramic water filtration systems in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Dupre is a member of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a similar idea to Doctors Without Borders, but less widely known. EWB has nearly 300 chapters in the United States made up of 14,700 student and professional members. Projects span 47 countries on five continents, developing practical and sustainable community-driven engineering solutions. To ensure that a community’s needs are met, the EWB’s chapters establish five-year commitments with developing communities.

Invaluable experience for young engineers

Founded in 2002 by Dr. Bernard Amadei, EWB designs and implements sustainable engineering projects while offering a real-world experience to young engineers who want to make a difference.

“I think EWB is unique in how it provides students an opportunity to gain an international context for their studies with such an in-depth cultural and technical immersion,” Dupre says. “That is a truly invaluable experience for engineers, scientists, and in business.”

A drill rig in Pinalito, DR, is moved to the location of a new water well.

EWB projects are composed of seven broad project types—agriculture, civil works, energy, information systems, sanitation, structures, and water supply—and range from drilling a borehole well in the Gambia to constructing a health clinic in Rwanda. Many of the projects are related to bringing clean drinking water to communities where it is scarce. Today, there are more than two-billion people around the world that lack access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.

Dupre joined Northern Illinois University’s EWB as a freshman after seeing a flyer about the organization on campus. The group has 25 active members and three international projects in the works—one in Tanzania, Africa and two in Mexico. Taylor has been focused on Guanajuato, Mexico, and over the past three years his work has had a huge impact on his life.

“The biggest thing that we have done so far is help re-establish a trusting relationship with the communities in which we’ve worked. So many times organizations will implement projects in developing nations with little regard to the true needs of the communities they are trying to help, and that kind of work breeds distrust and leaves communities worse off in the long run,” Dupre says.

“We have been working in the communities of Guanajuato for four years now and have established solid lines of communications and real relationships with the people,” he continues. “Taking this approach lets the communities know that we are in it for the long haul, and that we won’t leave until they truly have the capacity to sustain the work that we have done with them.”

Dupre feels the experience has shaped both his education and his global perspective. Prior to joining EWB he had never traveled outside of the country and his understanding around how engineering projects are carried out in other parts of the world was non-existent.

“I think the greatest shift in my perspective has been the importance of staying humble and aware of the true impact being experienced during a project,” he says.

The next project for Dupre? A boy’s orphanage—also in Guanajuato—earmarked for 10kW grid-tie solar array installation as well as structural improvements to the dormitories.

Continuing EWB’s mission at Harvard

Chris Lombardo began volunteering with EWB when he was a student at the University of Maryland in 2004, and continued while doing graduate and post-graduate work at the University of Texas. Today, as assistant director for undergraduate studies in engineering sciences at Harvard, Lombardo leads a team of students as EWB faculty advisor.

About 30 students are involved in the program, with eight to 10 making up the executive board. But engineering students aren’t the only ones involved—over a quarter of the students are from other disciplines like humanities and life sciences. Lombardo describes EWB as “a cross between a student club, a professional society, and an extra-curricular project,” noting that some students earn credits for their on-site project involvement. The gender make-up of the group is about half and half, despite the fact that only about 34 percent of the undergraduate engineering students at Harvard are women.

William Jameson, a Harvard student, & Christopher Lombardo repair leaking water pipe in Pinalito, DR.

The Harvard chapter has been working in Pinalito, Dominican Republic for about two and a half years. The goal of the project is to upgrade the water quality and distribution system after a previously built hydro-electric dam and groundwater well failed, possibly due to improper installation or clay and sediment clogging and destroying the pump.

The students first evaluated different options for water sources. After considering tapping springs and water purification for the river, they decided to dig another groundwater well and tap into the existing water tank and distribution system. Lombardo and a team of seven students traveled to Pinalito in January 2014 to dig and set up the well, and the team traveled back in August to augment the piping system and check on the quality and quantity of the water.

“There was no bacterial or chemical contamination to the water, a much higher flow rate than expected, and the community members are extremely pleased about the quantity and quality of the water,” Lombardo says. “Now they’re not using their relatively limited economic income to purchase bottled water for drinking.”

The community also decided that this resource would be strictly for household use, and water from the river would still be pumped up to water crops. They also made sure that the community leaders were well-trained to keep the system operational.

Engineers Without Borders establishes trusting relationships with the local community.

“EWB is an excellent educational opportunity to give back,” Lombardo says. “Our students, and engineering students throughout the country and the world, have an enormous capability to partner with under-served communities throughout the world. We can provide engineering expertise to help alleviate some of the infrastructure issues.”

“The work brings a certain perspective,” Lombardo continues. “Our students really become globally aware of the impact of engineering projects throughout the world—including health, economic, agricultural impacts.”

Interested in giving back?

Engineers Without Borders-USA has both student and professional chapters and encourages passionate individuals to join the global movement to build a better world.

Photos courtesy of Chris Lombardo