Engineers Without Borders

Volunteers bring villages clean water and renewable energy—and expand their own professional borders

Photo: Peter Coats

In 2000, Bernard Amadei, a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, visited San Pablo, Belize, where the sight of little girls hauling water instead of attending school broke his heart.

Here was a problem he knew he could solve. Back in Boulder, he recruited eight civil and environmental engineering students to design and install a clean water system powered by a local waterfall. The total cost, including airfare for him and his students, came to US $14 000.

It was just the beginning for Amadei, who went on to found Engineers Without Borders–USA in 2002. The organization now inspires 12 000 members in over 250 chapters around the country. The more than 350 programs currently under way lean heavily toward civil engineering—a farm irrigation system in Bolivia, a geothermal heating system for a Native American tribe in South Dakota—but some, such as small hydroelectric systems and rooftop solar panel installations, require the skills of electrical engineers.

The U.S. organization follows in the footsteps of a movement that began in France in the 1980s and then spread to Spain, Italy, Canada, and many other countries. The organizations were quite independent, though, sharing only a name and a mission, so in 2004 Amadei created an informal network, EWB-International. Today it has 45 member groups, including ones in Kosovo, Rwanda, and Iran.

However, the larger, older groups have chosen not to join, in part because, as EWB Canada states on its Web site, they lack a ”common strategy and culture.” The Canadians, for instance, tend to send just one volunteer at a time, for just a year or two, to help manage projects run by local companies, governments, and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. ”There’s no lack of people with engineering skills in these countries,” says EWB Canada cofounder Parker Mitchell. ”If there are qualified engineers, why are we taking over their jobs? Engineering skills are valuable, but management can have more impact at lower cost.”

The one big group that does belong is Amadei’s own EWB-USA. It got so big so fast because it was pushing on an open door.

”Amadei tapped into a previously unexploited humanitarian passion within the U.S. engineering community,” says Peter Coats, a civil engineer and cofounder of EWB-USA’s San Francisco chapter, the first to consist of professionals instead of students.

That higher purpose is particularly attractive to women, who make up more than 40 percent of student volunteers, twice the proportion of female engineering graduates. They identify more with people and humanity, says Cathy Leslie, a civil engineer who serves as the executive director of EWB-USA. ”Women don’t thrive on creating technology for technology’s sake.”

Photo: Eyleen Chou

Communities or local NGOs typically provide EWB-USA with a wish list of needs, and the organization plays matchmaker, helping pair chapters with specific projects. Clean water tops the list—establishing sewage systems, sanitation systems for collecting and disposing of waste, and irrigation canals. Cheap, renewable sources of electricity are also a common need.

These projects can’t be built in a day, and like almost all engineering work, they need to be maintained and upgraded, so there is an emphasis on imparting knowledge to local community members and NGOs. For this, project teams include trainers and business folks in addition to engineers. ”You establish a sort of trust, which is really powerful,” says Eyleen Chou, the president of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s student chapter. ”There’s no reason why you shouldn’t stay 10 years or longer.”

Leslie says that successful chapters such as Chou’s can build and maintain many projects despite a constant rotation of entering freshmen and departing seniors. They establish training programs and mentorships, devise ways for new students to contribute, and find sustainable funding.

Chapters raise big chunks of project money themselves, but they work under basic guidelines. At a project’s onset, they consult with an EWB-USA technical advisory committee to tweak and finalize plans. Teams must commit five years to a project.

Professional chapters have some of the same problems of bringing new volunteers up to speed while experienced ones drop out—and their members face the additional challenge of juggling their project work with full-time jobs. Coats says the San Francisco chapter’s members typically spend at least five hours per week, but this can spike during special events or an actual field visit. Coats himself has on occasion spent over 30 hours a week on EWB activities in addition to his job.

In the process of improving others’ lives, EWB is also creating a better brand of engineer, says Leslie. ”The work we do has educational value for the student,” she says, and taking a professional out of the office ”makes for a more well-rounded engineer.”

About the Author

Contributing Editor Prachi Patel writes frequently on career issues, most recently in November 2009 with ”Aerospace Job Forecast: Skies Are Clearing.” You can also hear her on Spectrum Radio and Public Radio International’s ”Living on Earth.”

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