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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 in bloom."

Finding community

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.

Engineering a better world

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 does well.

"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 them."