Impact through innovation
Ten years ago, Angel Tzec, a native of San
Pablo, Belize, invited his good friend Dr. Bernard Amadei, a professor of civil
engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder, to visit his struggling
village. San Pablo had no electricity or sanitation, and was in desperate need
of clean water. Compelled to help in any way he could, Amadei later returned to
the village with eight of his students. Together, the students and the
villagers installed a clean water system powered by a local waterfall. This was
the beginning of Engineers without Borders USA (EWB-USA), and in 2002, the
program began to implement low cost, high impact projects to aid developing
countries around the world.
The EWB concept, in which students make a
significant difference while gaining hands-on experience, was a natural fit for
Northern Arizona University. The university’s EWB-USA chapter was founded in
2006, and has since allowed students to help the people of Ghana, Honduras, and
the Navajo Nation.
Though the intentions behind EWB projects are
largely charitable, the outcomes are intended to help everyone involved. Anna
Vanmeter, a senior majoring in civil engineering and head of the Ghana Project,
says the end goal is to help each community become self-sustaining.
founding basis of Engineers without Borders is that we don’t come in and do the
work for them,” Vanmeter says. “We have ideas for projects, but we want to help
the locals enact them. In the process, we want them to teach us and we want to
learn and do this together as kind of a shared experience.”
Helping in Ghana
The university’s EWB Ghana Project is located in
Yua, a small community near the Burkina Faso border in northern Ghana. The
project involves the creation of a shaded plaza and a drip irrigation system to
pump clean water to Yua, a task which formerly required villagers to walk
several miles to a nearby river. Through the use of photovoltaic (solar) panels
and a water tank, the project aims to implement an all-natural energy system
for the pump.
Vanmeter admits that the project has hit its
share of roadblocks, including the need to rebuild the plaza after some of the
structure’s wood had rotted. Despite these struggles, she says the village’s
reception to their team has been warm, and that people have frequently
expressed their gratitude to the program members.
“They have had a few welcoming ceremonies,
written us a song, and provided other gestures to express their gratitude,”
Vanmeter says. “They know why we’re there, and they’re very open to anything
that we wanted to try to do to help. What we have with them makes the work
we’ve done even more fulfilling.”
Paul Trotta, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, says the chapter’s
value goes beyond the help they provide communities - it extends to the knowledge
and experience gained by its members.
“It’s all about the practice that students get
making something happen,” Trotta says. “Something happens that’s bigger than
them, something that’s out of their comfort zone. They’re not necessarily using
differential equations or analyzing complex digital circuits, but they are
working on their fundamental skills as engineers.”
Making a difference close to home
Following the group’s success in Ghana, members
of university’s EWB chapter created the Global Partnership Project. This
project is connected with EWB-USA, but allows for a greater range of communities
that can receive help.
One such project is focused on helping Roatan,
Honduras developing a wastewater system for a small community by creating solar
panels to improve the electric supply for a water distribution system.
The other is positioned much closer to home - on
a farm in the Navajo Nation. Located in Leupp, Arizona, the Navajo Nation
Project is designed to provide access to basic resources that locals are
currently without. Two additional solar-powered farms are planned for the near
future, including one on the Hopi reservation.
“We wanted to start a local project so more
students would be able to have that experience,” says Cheryl Dilks, a junior
environmental engineering major and director of the Navajo Nation Project. “The
Navajo reservation is in need of this type of assistance.”
Ultimately, the university’s EWB chapter gives
students as much value as it does the communities they help. Matthew Petney, a
senior mechanical engineering major and the president of EWB-USA, explains how the
organization is ideal for students seeking to make a difference and gain
“If you want to do more than you’ve ever done in
your life, if you want to have a greater impact than you have in the past,
Engineers without Borders is the answer. It allows you to influence the world,”