Impact through innovation

Engineers without borders - two men shaking hands
Engineers without Borders provides real-world experiences to undergraduates.

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.

“The 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. 

Engineers without borders - three men building

“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.”

Universal value

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 real-world skills.

“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,” Petney says.