HELPING HANDS — Summer 2007
   

 
Professor Michael Nobs (left) works with engineering students Daniel Payne and Allison Rowe to lay out the exterior dimensions of a combined health-care and education center in Antigua, Guatemala.
Beyond Borders: Students Work Toward Sustainable Engineering Solutions

by Terri Nappier

In early October 2005, storms associated with Hurricane Stan whipped across Central America, dropping torrential rains and causing widespread flooding and mudslides in Guatemala, El Salvador, and parts of Mexico. More than 1,600 people lost their lives, and property damage was estimated between $1 and $2 billion. Since this horrific event, residents of poverty-stricken areas have been slowly rebuilding their villages, homes, and lives.

In the following month, November 2005, a group of Washington University engineering students, led by Ben Bocher, B.S.C.E./M.S.C.E. '06, and Professors Michael Nobs and Andrea Heugatter, completed the process of founding a chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), begun the preceding May. (The international grassroots organization has some 200 chapters in the United States alone.) In EWB, University students align their personal and professional goals with the organization's twofold mission: 1. to reach out to neighbors worldwide with sustainable engineering solutions to infrastructural challenges, and as a consequence improve the standard of living; and 2. to create socially aware engineering students and professionals.

"Not only do we reach out to people in other countries, or actually in our own city, who need engineering help," says Frank Bergh, Engineering Class of '08, president of the University's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, "we also hope to change our own perspectives on the world and to become more socially aware in our own lives."

Engineers Without Borders students (from left) Daniel Payne, Allison Rowe, and Frank Beling, along with advisor Michael Nobs, a professor in civil engineering, worked together in Antigua, Guatemala, on centers for education and health and on housing.

Frank Beling, Engineering Class of '08 and EWB's treasurer; Daniel Payne, Engineering Class of '07 and EWB's vice president; and Allison Rowe, Engineering Class of '09, are among the students who take Engineers Without Borders' charge seriously. Over spring break this past March, they and their project advisor, Michael Nobs, a professor in civil engineering, traveled to Antigua, Guatemala, to work with the God's Child Project (GCP). The team surveyed two building sites for future health-care clinics and education centers and began work to design more sustainable housing.

The God's Child Project (www.ana.org.gt) is an organization that works to "combat the poverty of the region through educational solutions." GCP maintains a number of schools and orphanages in Guatemala, as well as programs encouraging international benefactors to sponsor children for their educational and food and clothing needs.

"Through our help with construction of new community centers, the God's Child Project will be able to reach a wider population in the area surrounding Antigua, providing education and medical aid to an even greater number of children," says Rowe. "With a more efficient design, the volunteer-built houses can be built faster and cheaper, again with the intent of giving as many families as possible a safe and comfortable place to live."

Engineers Without Borders' relationship with the God's Child Project, which was precipitated by alumnus and quality engineer Dale Besterfield, B.S. '53 (Ph.D. '71, Southern Illinois University), was not confined to a single week in March. The relationship began in October 2006 when the founder and executive director of GCP, Patrick Atkinson, met with Besterfield and EWB leadership to discuss future collaboration. Over the next few months, the relationship evolved through frequent phone calls and e-mails. Discussions of the health-care center intensified between University volunteers and GCP's leadership as the time neared for the students' first visit to the region. Following the successful trip, plans are under way for students and faculty to return to Antigua in August 2007, while construction on the education center is beginning. The University's Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service has provided a $7,500 grant to support the project. Further, EWB students plan to travel over subsequent breaks for several years to continue working with the God's Child Project. Their objective is to establish a five-year relationship.

A view of Antigua, Guatemala.

The University's chapter receives administrative and development guidance from the national Engineers Without Borders organization, which recommends staying with a community for the long term. Of utmost importance is making sure the people who are being helped know all there is to know about new facilities as well as how to properly maintain them. Establishing an enduring relationship also enables EWB members to actually see how their project is serving the needs of the community—and what additional work could benefit them.

"We're hoping to create a sustainable relationship and not just throw up a building and leave," Bergh says. "We're hoping to foster a relationship that is as sustainable as our buildings."

"We're hoping to foster a relationship that is as sustainable as our buildings."

Fostering relationships is paramount as well to the 50 to 60 Engineers Without Borders students working on projects in the St. Louis area. With the North Grand Neighborhood Services organization, for example, EWB students are providing volunteer labor for the rehabilitation of homes, which then are made available for well below market price for those in need in North St. Louis.

Working with Gateway Greening, an urban farming community that provides plants for urban green spaces, students are designing a "port-a-cooler"—a mobile refrigeration unit that will assist in keeping crops from spoiling during transportation.

For the Karen House, a shelter for female victims and children of domestic violence, EWB students are assessing the facility's needs—eventually to upgrade it and make it more comfortable and welcoming.

Outside St. Louis, EWB students assisted the Action for Water in Education Foundation in El Salvador in May 2006. There, students discussed bringing running water to an isolated mountain village. During spring break 2006, EWB students traveled to New Orleans to assist in hurricane relief efforts.

Brittany Hagedorn, incoming president of Engineers Without Borders, and Brian O'Neal, incoming vice president, met at Thurtene Carnival in April 2007 to discuss the EWB contest winners' housing prototype (in background). The contest's objective was to advance current housing designs for the God's Child Project in Guatemala.

In determining projects, the University chapter—which is becoming more visible on campus each semester—has several committees: local work, international work, fundraising, engineering-enrichment, and executive. Bergh, as president, has overall administrative responsibilities, but each project has its own manager.

"Our group offers a lot of opportunity for students to define their own passions, take the lead on an initiative, and bring other students with them to make it a reality," Bergh says.

The University's chapter engages students outside specific projects. At meetings, the group often discusses broad-based engineering topics. Last semester, it hosted an architecture professor who spoke on sustainable design; and plans are under way to bring in faculty or professional engineers to talk about solar power and potable water. In October 2006, EWBUSA selected Washington University to host a training workshop for all student and professional Midwest Engineers Without Borders chapters. And engaging students further, the group held a design contest on sustainable housing.

The contest's objective was to advance current housing designs for the God's Child Project. The winners, Brian Backsheider, Engineering Class of '07; Mark Hendel, Engineering Class of '07; and Mark Goldman, Engineering Class of '10, received a cash grant and created a prototype of the design, which was presented as part of "Green 13" at Thurtene Carnival on April 21–22, 2007.

As the key faculty member on projects in Guatemala, Nobs sees an unparalleled opportunity for students. "These students definitely want to create something beneficial for others, while enjoying the opportunity to practice significant engineering," he says. "Engineers Without Borders is an outstanding complement to their University education."

Terri Nappier is editor of the magazine.