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Engineers Without Borders -- USA

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In a village called Yua in Ghana, Africa, girls as young as five spend their entire days collecting water. Some walk more than a mile to the nearest borehole. Balancing buckets of water on their heads, they trek back home. The time-consuming task means there's no time to go to school. So in Yua classrooms, you'll find mostly male students.

The village is working with students from Northern Arizona University on a project to add wells. They're drilling one deep well at the village's marketplace and one at the medical clinic. They're also building a water plaza. The plaza uses a solar-powered pump to draw water into a huge holding tank.

"Overall, it allows them greater access to clean, potable water.... Without clean water, you have all different kinds of other problems that arise -- from health to education to community cohesiveness," says Danielle Varnes. She is the team's project manager.

The team members are volunteers with Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA). EWB-USA is a non-profit organization involved in development work like the Yua project. There are 270 chapters across the country. Most are based at universities and colleges. Yua is just one of 320 EWB-USA projects aimed to help people in developing countries.

EWB-USA volunteers work with local people and organizations to build schools and bridges. They help dig wells, install irrigation technology and develop sanitation systems. Volunteers also educate and train local people on the technology. For instance, they may teach farmers how to maintain irrigation pumps, or train local staff on computers.

"We work with communities to increase their hope for the future," says Gina Earles. She is managing director of Engineers Without Borders-USA.

"If we can help them to bring safe water to their community, not only are they no longer dreadfully sick from dysentery, they can use their energy in a much more productive way than carrying water up and down a hill. The children can go to school. The women can learn to read. The women can take their craft and turn it into a business," she says.

Each volunteer trip overseas may be 10 days to three weeks in length. All of the projects are multi-year commitments, so volunteers may travel once or twice a year. However, not all EWB-USA volunteers travel overseas. Much of the work is done locally.

Volunteers work in partnership with communities in designing and researching technology that the community has identified as important. Their goal is sustainable development -- that means the technology can be maintained by the community after the volunteers have left.

"A wonderful outcome for these project teams is becoming globally aware, and becoming internationally responsible...." says Earles. "The engineers are fine tuning and honing their engineering skills because, really, what the [projects require] is basic, fundamental engineering."

Many EWB-USA volunteers are engineering students and professional engineers. However, the organization recruits volunteers with various backgrounds -- from humanities to business to medicine.

Only half the members of Varnes' chapter are engineering students, although she adds that this is unusual. Varnes has a degree in international affairs herself.

"We've found that more than 50 percent of the work that we do is non-engineering," she says. "A lot of it is social... A lot of it is journalism... and marketing."

Started in 2002, EWB-USA has seen the number of projects it supports grow by 60 to 80 percent per year.

"I think what we're doing really strikes a chord with a lot of people," says Earles. "Clearly among university students, it's just a huge draw to be able to really experience what humanitarian engineering is all about."

On an overseas placement in Ghana, one civil engineering student used drama to help the local community.

In a district in northern Ghana, local government agents work with farmers. They teach the farmers new skills, provide loans and tell them about diseases. However, each agent serves 3,000 farmers. And the farmers live in remote locations. That means the agents have to send written information to them. The problem is that many of the farmers can't read, or they're not interested.

After learning about the community and its challenges, engineering student Sarah Johnson came up with a unique idea. With a background in theater and improvisation, she suggested using drama as a new way to connect with the farmers.

Johnson and the agents ran a 45-minute play in the town square about the importance of repaying loans. Many farmers came to the show. A few even acted in the play.

"It's exciting," says Johnson. "International development is the most complex ... problem I could try to solve. It has changed my career focus. As an engineer, you can do lots of technical things that don't make a big difference, or make a negative difference.... For me, as an engineer, it's important to be globally minded because we're designing the future."

As a member of his university's chapter, Michael Kang has a heavy load. He's a fourth-year engineering-physics student. And he works part time as an optical engineer. Despite his busy schedule, Kang is devoted to the organization. That's because he appreciates the impact it has.

"Engineers Without Borders is entirely focused on actually having some long-term change, and changing the way things are done," he says. "And that's a tough thing to do."

One project his chapter has worked on is a dam in Zambia. The dam provides irrigation to farmers in the dry season. "[The dams] don't work because after one season they erode away because they're not very well built," Kang says. "And the people don't have any knowledge or any inclination to maintain them. So we empower the people in the village to take ownership of the dam ... help them learn how to fix it and mobilize them to take it under their wing."

Kang also sees the impact that their work has on chapter members.

"When I see someone in my chapter at the beginning of the year who was reluctant about getting involved in anything... I see that person grow from an 18-year-old, first-year student to someone I know the chapter can really count on. They've taken the jump from awareness to caring to actually daring to act. That, to me, is impact."

How to Get Involved

EWB-USA has chapters at colleges and universities across the country, as well as professional chapters. Becoming a chapter member is the best way to get involved and learn about current projects. Visit EWB-USA's website to find your local chapter, or to start a new chapter.


Engineers Without Borders USA


Engineers Without Borders-USA - Chapters
Find out more about joining or starting a chapter

Engineers Without Borders USA - News
Read the latest news from EWB-USA

The Yua Development Project
Learn more about the Yua project

Discover Engineering
Learn about the field of engineering. Includes video clips and interactive games

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