Spreading the health
|May 08, 2009|
Students volunteer time, expertise to provide water near and far
By Ryan Kingsbury
For more than five years, a dedicated group of students from the Daniel A. Okun chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has doggedly pursued contacts, funding and logistical support for projects around the world. The goal? To help people in developing countries improve their quality of life through sustainable infrastructure development.
Former environmental sciences and engineering graduate student Joe Brown, now assistant professor at The University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, founded the UNC chapter in 2004 to implement a rainwater catchment system that provides clean drinking water to a school in Dey Ut, Cambodia.
Since that first project, Okun EWB students have designed and constructed a water transmission system to convey clean water to a remote village in the Moche Valley of Peru. They’ve also installed solar panels on homes in rural Mexico. By providing power for electric lights at night, the panels will help lift families out of poverty by allowing children to study and families to continue weaving and producing marketable goods after dark. This year, in addition to continued work with these communities, students from the Okun chapter are developing new projects in Moldova and Ecuador.
The chapter has grown to approximately 50 active members, hailing from several departments within UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health as well as from other graduate and undergraduate programs across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
“Engineers Without Borders” is a bit of a misnomer, however, because every project to date has involved students with widely varying backgrounds. In fact, most of the Okun chapter’s members are not engineers. Many kinds of expertise are needed, and EWB teams supplement their knowledge with the specialized skills of faculty members and professional mentors from a local network of engineers.
In October 2008, former Okun EWB president Kari Leech, a master’s student in environmental sciences and engineering, accompanied School faculty members Don Lauria, Phil Singer and Geni Eng on a reconnaissance trip to the Republic of Moldova. This post-Soviet nation is among the poorest in Europe, and there are wide disparities between the standards of living in the relatively modern cities and rural areas.
The UNC team was asked to assess conditions at several rural schools, where there were concerns about groundwater contamination and poor sanitation. Leech and others observed primitive sanitation conditions, especially noting dirty latrines, a lack of facilities for proper hand washing, and inadequate privacy for female students.
Upon return to UNC, Leech recruited a group of interested EWB members to pursue a project at one of the schools she visited. These students are working with officials from the U.S. Bilateral Affairs Office to partner with the Moldova Ministry of Health to improve sanitation facilities. The students have proposed to conduct a detailed assessment of the needs and priorities of the selected community and to construct improved latrine facilities at the school there. In tandem with the introduction of the new latrines, EWB would conduct educational seminars aimed at promoting good health behaviors (such as hand washing). If the initial project is successful, the chapter hopes to spread the effort to additional schools.
The EWB team represents part of a larger effort by UNC to aid Moldova. The U.S. Bilateral Affairs Office administers a partnership through which the state of North Carolina provides development assistance and other aid to the country. UNC students from the dental school and other health science schools have been working in the country for several years, and the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s health behavior and health education department hopes to work with Moldova’s Ministry of Education to develop a nationwide health curriculum for schools.
The challenges of developing an international project are formidable. The Okun EWB chapter is part of a national organization (EWB-USA), which provides support and oversight to the UNC chapter’s work. The national office doesn’t identify communities in need or hand out money to chapters for project costs — that’s up to the students. Generally, the chapter finds projects by pursuing faculty, alumni or professionals who have connections to the developing world, and works with them to find communities with which to partner. Then, student teams conduct fundraisers and write grant proposals to cover project costs.
One of the biggest challenges for EWB members at UNC is the lack of available travel funding. It’s often feasible to find grant money for project materials like pipe or wire, but these funds usually can’t be used for travel. Since most Okun EWB members are graduate students, the travel funding that is available is geared toward research, not service, so students traveling on EWB trips are often not eligible. Still, many students pay out of pocket for the opportunity to participate in these projects.
Not every project involves so many logistical hurdles, though. For Okun EWB students, “Without Borders” doesn’t just imply international work, but work in the local community as well. Another EWB team has partnered with Chris Heaney, epidemiology alumnus and postdoctoral trainee in biostatistics, to help citizens of the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood between Chapel Hill and Carrboro achieve environmental justice.
Whether a community is half a world away or right here in the neighborhood, students in the Daniel Okun Chapter of Engineers Without Borders are dedicated to using their scientific and engineering skills to make life better for others. With that dedication comes a commitment to a continued relationship with each community. These projects are not undertaken as one-year affairs, but with the understanding that truly sustainable changes take years to implement.
Students involved in EWB work do not receive academic credit, and most of the Okun EWB’s five projects will last longer than the graduate academic career of a typical member. Despite these challenges, the chapter’s work is sustained by the dedication to fighting global poverty and improving quality of life that has passed from year to year since it began.
View more photographs of EWB’s work on Flickr.
Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.