A Global Approach to Sustainability
For Paul Trotta, professor of civil and environmental
engineering at Northern Arizona University, his greatest thrill is interacting
with those in the university community—especially students—who are
"intrinsically motivated to make the world a better place." After
more than 30 years of teaching at the university, Trotta says he thrives on the
energy of that motivation—both his own and that found among the members of the
university community. During his time in Flagstaff, Trotta found the impetus to
reinvent his career, and his students' experiences as well.
"I have seen some of our best and brightest children
succeed professionally and with no passion from within," he says.
"But to see our best and brightest exceed with passion is to watch a human
At the beginning of his career, Trotta sought a smaller
school where his family could sink roots into the university and town. What he
found at Northern Arizona University and Flagstaff in 1978, and still enjoys,
is a palpable sense of community.
"I was looking for a college that offered
fundamental undergraduate engineering education taught by the professors, but
also allowed and encouraged time for professional involvement, scholarly
activities and community service," he says.
Trotta spent much of his professional career focusing on
small-scale, stand-alone waste-water recycling systems and flood control. Over
time, Trotta realized that teaching civil and environmental engineering could
encompass more than the detailed analysis of specific technical minutiae and
that, in fact, it could be about the total process of community improvement.
During his time at the university, he also came to
realize that engineering could also help make the world a better place in a
larger sense. Thanks to the initial suggestion and encouragement of an
undergraduate student, Trotta became the advisor to Northern Arizona
University’s emerging chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), an
organization devoted to helping impoverished communities implement
environmentally sustainable, equitable, and economical engineering projects to
improve quality of life.
"I'm in a transition from being the guru of on-site
waste-water treatment and recycling to being the EWB chapter advisor, which is
far more fun," Trotta says.
Northern Arizona University students, representing majors
from all colleges, have already made five trips to Ghana in western Africa to
work on community-driven projects. "Our first success was a solar-powered
water station for the community center," says Trotta. "Then the rural
community leaders indicated that the best way to improve community health was
not just more water and PV panels, but that a residence was needed for a
government-supplied nurse. The EWB-NAU students organized a trip to build a
residence on the side of the clinic we had been helping. The community now has
a nurse full-time."
EWB-NAU continues to grow, and its activities now include
a project on Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. Another new project
will design and build solar-powered community gardens on the Hopi and Navajo
reservations. Trotta says the students
are the drivers for these projects.
“Many of the potential projects are brought forth and
developed by the students themselves. If we give the motivated students some ‘leash’
to leave it to themselves to make it happen, you would be impressed what can
happen,” Trotta says.
Going forward, Trotta will continue to push for an
innovative program, called "Essential Skills for Sustainable
Development," which will train students to make a difference in the world
by helping them develop a broad range of interdisciplinary skills. Such an
approach, says Trotta, is very closely aligned with what the university already
"EWB-NAU is at the intersection of three of the
university's major thrusts: it's global in approach, it's sustainable if done
correctly, and it's diverse both within and outside the university," he
says. "We want to train our students to be able to go out in the world and
participate in learning through service activities, where they can be
productive, safe, and sensitive to the cultural needs of people around