Engineers put idealism to work

October 01, 2006|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

They had hoped to change the lives of a group of South African villagers for the better by building a simple watering system for community gardens. But the work might have changed the young engineers' lives as well.

"It was different from anything I've ever experienced," said Maya Sathyanadhan, an engineering graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. "It was so hard, but so enlightening, too."

Sathyanadhan is not alone. At Johns Hopkins and other engineering schools across the nation, hundreds of engineering students are finding ways to give personal meaning to their professional education by participating in Engineers without Borders, an international assistance program.

Unlike Doctors Without Borders and groups with similar names, Engineers Without Borders doesn't respond to emergencies. Instead, university chapters focus on small-scale development projects in rural areas.

Generally, student volunteers work on water systems and alternative energy projects for towns that lack the money or training to do the work themselves. Part of the point, organizers say, is to give young engineers an outlet for their enthusiasm and idealism.

William P. Ball, professor of environmental engineering at Hopkins, is the faculty adviser for the Johns Hopkins group and led the trip to South Africa in June. "Students don't get much chance to see the principles they've learned put to practical use," he said. "At the end of this project, they saw water pouring from a spigot and the smiles on these women's faces."

"Until now, engineers have been seen as a bunch of technical nerds," said Bernard Amadei, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who launched Engineers Without Borders in 2000. "And to a certain extent it's true. But I think now they have a bigger role to play in making the world a better place."

The organization's roots date to 1998, when Amadei bought a house in Boulder. He hired a landscaper from Belize, who invited him to come to the Central American nation to help improve the engineering curriculum of a school there.

Two years later, Amadei toured some small Mayan villages, including San Pablo, population 250. What he saw, he said, "broke my heart."

There was no electricity or running water. Little girls spent the whole day hauling water from the river to the village in plastic buckets. They had no time for school.

Back at the University of Colorado, Amadei recruited a dozen engineering students for a trip back to Belize that fall. They built a small water system in San Pablo. He realized the work could be replicated in poor rural areas all over the world.

"Doing engineering in the middle of the jungle or the Sahara is not the same as doing engineering in Baltimore," Amadei said. "It's small-scale engineering, but with high social and economic impact. We can really change the world for the better."

Shortly after that first project in Belize, Amadei founded Engineers Without Borders-USA. Today, it has 149 chapters in the United States, with 50 more being formed. Engineers Without Borders-International, co-founded by Amadei in 2001, has chapters in 40 foreign countries.

After a talk by Amadei in October 2004, a group of Hopkins engineering students started to form a chapter, which got off the ground in 2005. Sathyanadhan is president of the chapter, and Ball agreed to act as faculty adviser.

Ball organized the KwaZulu-Natal project with the help of David Alcock, an agricultural engineer with a South African group called the Church Agricultural Project. Alcock is the son of Neil Alcock, a prominent political foe of the government during the era of apartheid. Neil Alcock was killed during a factional skirmish in 1983.

When the Hopkins contingent arrived in KwaZulu-Natal in June, Ball and the students set out to install simple water systems in community gardens in two villages, Maphaphateni and Inchanga.

They worked beside a corps of grandmothers, each of whom supervises a household, called a kraal, that consists of their sons' wives and children. According to an Engineers Without Borders newsletter, four in 10 people living in rural parts of the valley are HIV-positive or have full-blown AIDS.

On three occasions, translators did not show up because they were attending funerals, Ball said. Many young women in the villages were sick with the illness. As the young engineers walked past some huts, they could hear the moans of children suffering from the disease.

"It's just indescribable," Ball said. Most of the produce from the communal gardens goes to feed the villagers. Whatever is left over is sold. And the money, Ball said, is usually used to buy funeral gifts for the survivors of AIDS sufferers.

Before, the women of the two villages carried water from nearby streams to their gardens in plastic buckets balanced on their heads. Twice a day, they might trek the length of a football field and back, climbing the equivalent of about 2 1/2 stories, balancing the 70-pound weight on their heads.

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