Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders Works To Develop Sustainable Clean Water Collection in Panama
Life is simple and generally carefree for the village of nearly 250 fishermen, artisans, and subsistence farmers of the community of Sandubidi—also known as Popa II—on the island of Isla Popa in the Bocas del Toro region of the Republic of Panama.
However, a daily challenge they face is access to clean water. For nearly two years, though, the Rensselaer chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-RPI) has been working with the community to develop a solution.
“Projects like this really embody what it means to be an engineer.
As students, the opportunity to participate in an international development project is rewarding in so many ways. We are applying our academic experience to a real issue and working to come up with a creative and simple solution.”— Alex Angilella
Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit club of the Rensselaer Union and chapter of the larger national organization of the same name. It is focused on making a difference in the lives of communities around the world.
The Rensselaer chapter was founded in November 2010, under the leadership of students Jill Mendelson ’10 and Elliannah Hunderfund ’11. At that same time, the students also launched the chapter’s first project, “Development of Clean Water Source,” which seeks to deliver a system for collecting and storing adequate volumes of clean water for the Sandubidi (Popa II) community.
The project required support from the entire chapter, including 40 active undergraduate members. Members collaborated to understand the needs of the international problem, learn about water supply and treatment, and create plans for implementation.
The student members also receive support from three professional mentors: James (Chip) Kilduff, associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rensselaer; Alex Michaels, an energy engineer affiliated with Malcolm Pirnie, ARCADIS; and David Railsback, an environmental engineer from ARCADIS, which is an international company that provides consultancy, design engineering, and management services in the fields of infrastructure, water, environment, and buildings. “The mission of EWB is to support community-driven development programs worldwide through the design and implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while fostering responsible leadership,” said Kathleen DiMilia ’14, a junior majoring in industrial and management engineering, who also serves as chapter president. “We have been working with the community of Sandubidi to engineer a sustainable solution to improve their water supply and quality. Our project will allow their community to meet the basic human needs of access to clean water and give them more opportunities to develop and prosper.”
Several chapter members ventured to the Popa II community last January to become acquainted with the community dynamics and politics, collect information about the community and to work on sampling the water and environment for possible contaminants. Preliminary water testing suggested arsenic contamination in the water supply, as well as inadequate water supply during the drier months.
“Projects like this really embody what it means to be an engineer,” said Alex Angilella, former EWB president, who is now a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “As a student, the opportunity to participate in an international development project is rewarding in so many ways. We are applying our academic experience to a real issue and working to come up with a creative and simple solution.” “The project in Popa II presents our engineering students with an opportunity to explore and develop a water system within realistic constraints, which is something that we cannot do as well in the classroom,” said Kilduff. “International experiences are strongly supported and encouraged because they provide insights that engineers can draw on to create global solutions to design a better world. In Panama, the students have been faced with the challenge of developing a solution while also exploring a culture that they are unfamiliar with, and over the years, they have been able to collaborate with the community to find a solution that will allow them year-round access to clean water.”
Last August, Stephen Nock ’13, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering; Vince Buhler, a junior majoring in chemical engineering; Kyle Geisler, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering; and Kathleen DiMilia, along with two local engineering professionals and EWB professional mentors Alex Michaels and David Railsback, ventured to Sandubidi for the second assessment trip.
“During the second trip, we really wanted to understand how we might educate the community on the importance of clean water, so that people can stay healthy,” said Nock. In Popa II, current options include rainwater catchment in tank collection systems and shallow hand-dug groundwater wells. Community members avoid drinking from the groundwater whenever possible, but are limited by the amount of rain they receive during the dry season between the months of August and October. The trip provided us with a chance to test the feasibility of different solutions and obtain a greater understanding of the community and their culture.”
For now, EWB is looking into developing water collection and purification systems for Popa II. The organization will work to design the actual system and present it to EWB national office in Boulder, Colo. If the system design is approved, the chapter will begin the implementation phase.
To support the ongoing phases of the project, last summer the organization received an $8,500 grant from Pratt & Whitney and $2,000 from Boeing. In October 2012, they also received a $10,000 grant from the School of Engineering to continue their water filtration and storage project in Panama as part of the Dean’s Grant program for School of Engineering faculty and students. EWB is also participating in the weR Gold initiative, an effort comprised of alumni donors who work to select projects with the potential for the greatest impact on the Rensselaer community, while appealing to a wide cross-section of alumni.
To see the Engineers Without Borders in Panama, watch the travel video produced by Stephen Nock ’13 and edited by Zach Leighton on YouTube. For more information about the Rensselaer chapter of Engineers Without Borders, visit ewb.union.rpi.edu.