A World of Experience

Engineers Without Borders gives students hands-on experience close to home and around the world

UNM engineering students learn how to design bridges, improve energy sources, and create new computer programs. Now, by participating in Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA), they're also learning how to make immediate improvements to the quality of life for people here in New Mexico and on the other side of the globe.

Started in 2000, EWB-USA is a non-profit humanitarian organization that improves the quality of life in developing communities around the world through environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects. Most projects focus on sustainable enterprise development, clean water, and renewable energy. Recent EWB-USA efforts include rebuilding Indonesian shrimp hatcheries destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, installing a solar-powered laptop computer for a painting school in Nepal, and bringing potable water to a war-ravaged community in Rwanda.

EWB-USA has 230 professional and student chapters in the U.S., including one at UNM. The EWB-UNM chapter started two years ago and has 25 active members. Participation is voluntary but the return is invaluable; students get hands-on experience planning and implementing engineering projects as well as the chance to travel internationally. "EWB-UNM students are partnering with developing communities to design, build, and maintain environmentally and economically sustainable solutions," says Barbara Kimbell, EWB-UNM advisor. "They are sincerely committed to applying their considerable talent, passion, and compassion to build safer, healthier communities in New Mexico and abroad."

The chapter is actively recruiting new members from across campus with varied skill sets. "Having students from public health, community planning, and anthropology is advantageous as they provide a different perspective and may be able to identify potential impacts engineers may not consider," explains Kelly Isaacson (CE, '08), president of the chapter.

Helping Close to Home

EWB-UNM students can just drive to the western edge of New Mexico to help people in need. There UNM students are collaborating on the design and installation of a solar-powered heating system for a hogan in Ramah, a remote town on the Navajo Nation. The community uses the hogan to hold classes and as a meeting place for a local weaving co-op.

The team has designed a system that uses two solar panels to heat a working fluid, a combination of water and a chemical. The fluid will flow through a series of pipes and into an efficient radiator installed inside the hogan. The radiator will heat the hogan, and the working fluid will be pumped back to the panels where the process will be repeated.

The team is finalizing the system's design, researching radiators and pumps, and raising funds to buy equipment. Ten students are working on the project, but more will be on hand to install the system. "EWB students are helping a community in need while enhancing their engineering ability," says Elena Berliba-Vera, a junior in mechanical engineering, who is in charge of the Ramah effort. Funding, designing, and installing the system is just the start. Like all EWB projects, the chapter must commit to sustaining it for five years after implementation.

Making a Difference Around the World

Half a world away from Ramah, in the lowland savannas and forests of northwestern Bolivia, an indigenous group of forager-farmers called the Tsimane lives in 60 small villages along the Maniqui River. Development upriver is steadily polluting the Tsimane's water sources.

Helen Davis, a research assistant in the UNM Anthropology Department, presented the Tsimane's need for clean water and communications systems to the EWB-UNM chapter in 2007. Davis is working on her graduate studies with Hillard Kaplan, professor of anthropology at UNM. Kaplan and his students have worked in the villages for years studying the Tsimane's health, longevity, and social interactions. That connection provides great synergy for the engineering students who will need information about the Tsimane as well as help with logistics and translation services.

EWB-UNM will receive extra support on the Bolivia project from the EWB Albuquerque Professionals Chapter. Jeannette Moore, an employee at Sandia National Laboratories and one of the founders of the student chapter at UNM, acts as a liaison between the professional and student chapters. She says participating in EWB benefits everyone. "The students learn from the professionals, and the professionals learn from the students on many different levels. They find a deeper meaning for the word 'teamwork' through collaboration toward a common goal."

Professor James Matthews, EWB-UNM faculty advisor, concurs. "Observing the positive attitude and spirit of these young engineering students as they plan and interface with engineers in the professional community definitely gives one the feeling that the future of our society is in good hands."

EWB-UNM's first challenge on the Tsimane project is to raise $50,000 to fund research, project development, and travel. Then they'll plan an assessment trip for a small team of students who will travel to Bolivia, talk with villagers about their requirements, and take the measurements needed to develop water, sanitation, and communication systems. A much larger group of students will engineer solutions in Albuquerque, then return to Bolivia to implement the systems. The process is expected to take about a year.

Josh Goldman, a graduate student in civil engineering who is managing the Tsimane program, recognizes the great challenge. "At this point, our main goal is to raise the money to fund the assessment trip. The data we collect during that trip will inform our goals forward," he says.

Beyond the challenge, Goldman sees great potential for the Tsimane-and for EWB participants like himself. "EWB gives me the opportunity to use my engineering skills to assist people in need. At the same time, I have the chance to connect with people that I would be unlikely to ever meet in other circumstances. And hopefully I'll grow as an individual and an engineer."