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.”