March 2006 News
MTU's Engineers Without Borders helps Bolivian school
HOUGHTON -- Just a little more than a year old, Michigan Tech's chapter of Engineers Without Borders
(EWB) completed its first international project in November 2005, when seven students and
two MTU Professors, David Watkins and Kurt Paterson, both faculty in the
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, spent about a week building a sewage treatment system and bathroom facilities for the Buen
Samaritano (Good Samaritan) School in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
EWB-Michigan Tech members and Bolivian co-workers take a break from the action to pose for a photo.
(Photo © 2005 Brandon Braithwaite. Reprinted with permission.)
Much of the assessment and design components of the project were completed by Michigan Tech
International Senior Design (ISD) students who subsequently founded EWB-MTU.
In the last year, EWB-MTU has grown quickly to include approximately 75 students (first-year
through Ph.D.) and faculty in several departments. The group benefits from interactions with
the ISD and Michigan Tech's Peace Corps Masters International (MI) programs. For instance,
of the seven EWB-MTU students who traveled to Bolivia, two participated in ISD in Bolivia,
three are first-year students in the MI program and one is applying to the MI program for
Brandon Braithwaite, one of the Peace Corps Masters International students on the Bolivia
trip, summed up the value of the experience in cultural communication.
Brandon Braithwaite, EWB-MTU member and Peace Corps Masters International
student, poses with his new Bolivian friend. (Photo © 2005 Brandon
Braithwaite. Reprinted with
"All in all, the total group's sense of humor was the glue that kept everything together as
we found smiles and laughter to be universal," Braithwaite writes. "Those who returned from
Bolivia returned with a new sense of the world and a new sense of self." *
Paterson noted that in February 2006, about one year after conception, the Michigan Tech chapter was chosen
to receive the EWB Award for Chapter Development.
"These students have passion and are making important contributions to the
world," Paterson said. "In return, they have become better engineers and citizens. And they've
created all this on their own. University administrators everywhere
should be taking notes."
Bolivian community participates in project
In November 2005, when the EWB group of nine arrived in Santa Cruz to implement the septic
design, the community expressed desire for bathroom facilities in addition to the treatment
system; and the budget was stretched to accommodate this request. A paid foreman, two paid
masons, local volunteers and EWB members constructed the complete system and provided
information on hygiene and system operation to the community.
Watkins noted one important lesson learned during this project is that the hands-on,
technical expertise of local communities can be invaluable. Without the assistance of the
local people, several components of the project (notably the foundation and brickwork) would
have proceeded much more slowly; and the project may not have been completed during the time
available, he explained.
"One rather humorous moment occurred when several of us were trying to move a section of the
concrete lid onto the top of the septic tank," Watkins said. "Seeing us struggle, one of the
masons motioned us all out of the way and began to move the lid by himself, using one log
for a lever and two others as rollers. This was just one example of the mutual education
that occurred during the project."
This scene occurred right after one of the Bolivian workers (not pictured)
showed EWB members how to move concrete lids for the septic tank. Pictured, left
to right, are Ken Koers, Walter Eid Ortiz (local counterpart) Brandon
Braithwaite and Ryu Suzuki. (Photo © 2005 Kurt Paterson. Reprinted with permission.)
Watkins also noted meaningful and lasting relationships built between the EWB group and
Bolivian community members.
"During our trip, we experienced tremendous hospitality from the community, as well as
numerous cultural enrichment opportunities, despite some language barriers. For instance,
on the last night of our trip, the community held a farewell celebration that included dance
performances by the school children, music and dancing for the adults and a birthday cake
for one of our EWB members."
Laura Oman, the recipient of that birthday celebration, also commented on her interaction
with community members.
EWB-MTU members Laura Oman and Ryu Suzuki (second from right) give an
English lesson to students of the Buen
Samaritano School in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Prof. David Watkins, standing,
observes the interaction. (Photo © 2005 Brandon Braithwaite. Reprinted with permission.)
"I was 19 years old when we arrived in Bolivia, and this was my first international
experience," Oman said. "With limited Spanish knowledge I was still able to communicate with
the locals by 'talking' with my hands, facial expressions and my attempts at Spanish. This
led to a lot of laughter from both sides."
The local people were the best part of the trip, welcoming the group into their homes and
their daily lives, Oman added.
"We had to decline invitations for dinner everyday because so many people wanted to have
us over," she said. "I turned 20 while we were in Bolivia and the neighborhood threw me a
surprise birthday party complete with cake, guitar music and dancing. It was wonderful to
hear the children sing 'Happy Birthday' to me in Spanish and English."
EWB-MTU member Laura Oman celebrates her 20th birthday at a neighborhood
party held during the EWB project in Bolivia. (Photo © 2005 Brandon Braithwaite.
The Buen Samaritano School is the most rural school in District Seven of Santa Cruz,
Bolivia, and currently serves nearly 300 students. At least half of the students live in
rural subsistence farming homes and walk to the school from the surrounding areas. The
Bolivian government has not provided funds for construction and maintenance of bathroom
facilities at the school, and the low-income community could not afford to construct them.
This lack of facilities resulted in direct exposure to untreated human waste -- from the
open pit-latrine, from overflowing private systems near the school or from direct contact in other areas of the school property.
In August 2004, Michigan Tech International Senior Design (ISD) students met with District 7
Sub-mayor Blanca Vargas and identified the Buen Samaritano School as one site requiring
immediate engineering assistance. The student design team visited the site and found an
open pit with logs across the top to be the only facility. The design team then met with
the community to determine the needs of the school and gather appropriate data. After
considering several alternatives, the team and community selected a drainage field and
septic tank to serve the schoolís planned expansion to 450 students. A follow-up visit by
ISD students in August 2005 found the pit filled in, forcing students either to use the
bathrooms at neighboring homes (subsequently overflowing several systems) or to use
inappropriate locations on site (increasing exposure).
Michigan Tech's Engineers Without Borders work on a septic system with members of the Buen
Samaritano community. Project construction was a group effort. (Photo © 2005
Kurt Paterson. Reprinted with permission.)
With a strong desire to work with communities and construct projects in the developing
world, MTU students founded a chapter of EWB in January 2005 and selected Buen Samaritano as
the first project. The chapter immediately began a fundraising effort and established
contact with Mauricio Eid Ortiz (Bolivian Campus Crusade for Christ) to help organize the
trip and coordinate efforts with the community.
Very unfortunately, the chapter was affected by the untimely death of Danielle Ladwig, a
graduate student planning to travel with the team to Bolivia. Knowing that she would have
wanted the work to continue, the chapter decided to complete the project in Danielleís
Memorial plaque for MTU graduate student Danielle Fawn Ladwig, who passed
away just before she was expected to join the EWB Bolivia project. The MTU
chapter of EWB dedicated the project to her. (Photo © 2005 Kurt Paterson. Reprinted with
Though only nine EWB-MTU members made the trip to Bolivia, many more members of the student
chapter, as well as the chapterís professional mentors (Max Schmiege and Mike Paddock,
CH2M-Hill) were instrumental in the projectís success. Particularly noteworthy were
studentsí fund-raising efforts. With each member of the travel team contributing $500
towards airfare, more than $10,000 remained in fund-raising needs. The students responded
with a wide range of fund-raising activities, including writing letters to Michigan Tech
alumni, weekly bake sales and a band benefit at a local nightclub. Increased fundraising
efforts around campus led to greater public awareness of the project and EWB, and meeting
attendance began to increase. The team also developed promotional t-shirts, stickers, window clings,
post cards and posters to hang around campus and the community.
EWB-MTU members who completed the Buen Samaritano septic project pause for a
final group photo with the Eid Ortiz family at the school. Pictured are,
kneeling, Ryu Suzuki, left, and Ken Koers; standing, from left, Mauricio Eid Ortiz,
Prof. Kurt Paterson, Yaneth Eid Ortiz (Mauricio's wife), Laura Oman, Prof. David
Watkins, Beth Myre, Brandon Braithwaite and Walter Eid Ortiz. Not pictured are
EWB-MTU members Adam Ward and Melissa Trahan, who participated in the first part
of the project but were unable to remain the entire week. (Photo © 2005 Kurt
Paterson. Reprinted with
When the EWB group left Santa Cruz the septic system was complete, and the bathroom facilities were nearly operational. All materials were purchased, and remaining construction funds were left with Mr. Eid Ortiz to ensure the facilities would be ready for school to begin.
Watkins noted recently, "We've received news that the system is functioning well."
EWB-MTU plans future projects, local educational outreach
The Michigan Tech chapter of Engineers Without Borders created a program that has grown its membership 200% and encompasses students
in thirteen majors (including five non-engineering majors) across all academic levels (freshmen through doctoral).
Both professors expressed pride in MTU's new EWB Chapter and admiration for
the students' work.
Paterson noted the group is 40% women, and all five officers elected for next year are women.
"They've traveled to two countries to assist developing communities, are
partnering with universities and non-governmental organizations in three countries, spent their Spring Break building a sustainable home
for a poor family in Colorado and are developing outreach programs for local
schools," Paterson said. "The students are volunteering up to 20 hours of
their time per week, offsetting project costs with their own money and engaging the local community in their efforts."
EWB-MTU members, both faculty and students, and students from MTU's Peace Corps
Masters International program will participate in MTU's celebration of Earth
Week throughout this week by sharing their first-hand experiences: They will
present "Sustainable Building Techniques Used in Developing Countries"
during the Lunch and Learn session from 12:10 p.m. to
12:50 p.m. on Friday, Mar. 31, in Memorial Union Building (MUB) Ballroom A.
Watkins said the next group of ISD students (including several members of EWB) plans to return to Santa Cruz in Summer 2006, and at least one visit to Buen Samaritano will be scheduled to monitor project operation. EWB-MTU will maintain regular contact with the Buen Samaritano community.
Paterson notes EWB members are planning more projects and fundraising efforts. This week three EWB student members will leave for Guatemala
for ten days of community assessment in the village of Fronterizo.
"They will be teaming up with CCGAP (Copper Country Guatemalan
Accompaniment Project) members and a professor from a university in Guatemala to conduct a village
survey and extensive engineering measurements," Paterson explained. With these findings
we will assess what project(s) have community interest and technical viability and whether to proceed to the design and build phases."
* Editor's Note: Watch for a Viewpoints column by Brandon Braithwaite,
with more of his photos, coming soon.
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