Engineers Without Borders: Mission to Serve
A winter break in the tropics may conjure up images of tanning on a white sand beach, but a group of six students and faculty members from the USC chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) had other priorities. They would instead spend time trudging up the steep hillsides surrounding southern Ecuador’s La Victoria, a town of 1,500 nestled in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.
Although it has its share of striking vistas, La Victoria is far from a popular tourist destination. The USC group traveled there to meet with local officials and members of a coffee-growing cooperative of 23 farmers. The main goal of the 10-day trip was to help the growers identify a sustainable water source for their crops.
“They have to get their water trucked in during the dry season, and that can be kind if expensive as you can imagine,” said Brendan Croom, a junior mechanical engineering student. “Projects like this are the whole reason this organization exists.”
With the use of GPS devices, the students and volunteers from an engineering firm helped survey a 1.5 mile path through dense jungle to a mountain stream. They will use the data to design a gravity pipeline that will provide a year-round water supply to the coffee processing facility as well as a tree nursery housed at a local school. The EWB team plans to return to La Victoria to serve as project directors during the pipeline’s construction.
The project was first identified nearly two years ago through the national EWB organization, a non-profit which matches student chapters with specific engineering projects in developing countries. An award from the Magellan Scholars program through USC’s Office of Research helped fund the trip.
The group is not just for students who dream of becoming professional engineers. Andrea Eggleston, a sophomore biomedical engineering student, says she plans on attending dental school and opening a practice to serve the Hispanic community.
“This trip was a perfect match for my interests,” she said. “I’m very motivated by public service, and this also gave the opportunity to practice my Spanish.”
As the team mingled with local residents and visited a health clinic and a school, the trip became about much more than engineering.
“It was wonderful to make friends with these folks,” said Charles Feigley, a professor in the Arnold School of Public Health who served as the team’s health and safety officer. “One student would play soccer every night with the locals. Another student had the foresight to bring crayons and photo copied pages of coloring book pages to hand out to all the kids.”
USC’s EWB members will now spend months devising a specific project plan and raising funds for the return trip to La Victoria. The connections they’ve made there have strengthened their personal commitment to the project, which has expanded beyond the pipeline to include other needs identified during the trip.
The town’s health clinic has a leaky roof and mold growing on the ceiling tiles, among other problems. And many residents living right outside La Victoria frequently battle intestinal infections as a result of drinking untreated water directly from streams. Feigley said the team hopes to establish the framework for a public health campaign targeting residents about water quality. The EWB also plans on helping the clinic construct a new roof.
Croom said it’s important that USC’s EWB chapter continues to recruit new members and identify faculty mentors since completion of the projects could take years.
“Everyone we met with was very enthusiastic about our involvement, but they wanted to make sure we were committed, that we’d see this through,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the USC Times. For more from this issue, check it out online.
News and Internal Communications
University of South Carolina
28 Feb 2013