March 12-25, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 5
Back Issues
Barcelona: A laboratory for learning
Lindners create endowment for art history program
Kaleidoscope opens with community celebration
Headlines @ U.Va.
Free clinic grows beyond founders’ vision
Simulators to replace use of dogs
Cooking up a winner
Robert Marquez: Engineering environmental solutions with low-tech designs
Engineers Without Borders — U.Va. engineering students share their expertise
U.Va. maps out
Ten-year milestone gives book festival celebratory theme
Storyteller, healer Martin Prechtel to visit U.Va.
Environmental writers Lopez, Philippon to speak
Book art meets ‘Literary Art’
A pillar of Carr’s Hill, housekeeper Barbara Jett retires
Engineers Without Borders
U.Va. engineering students share their expertise
Alba Corral, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez
Every Saturday morning last summer, U.Va. engineering student Aaron Johnson (third from right) visited kiln areas in Juarez, Mexico, to teach reading, writing and basic math in Spanish to the little boys who hung around the site. “Some of these boys do not attend school, and instead work with the brick makers,” said Johnson, who also assisted U.Va. civil engineering professor Robert Marquez, by conducting pollution tests on brick-making kilns.

By Lauralee Thornton

While most U.Va. students worked part-time jobs or lazed on the beach last summer, Aaron Johnson, a fourth-year computer science major, and Girish Ratanpal, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, put their educations to work for communities in less-developed countries.

Johnson traveled to Juarez, Mexico, where he helped Robert Marquez, a visiting faculty member at U.Va. in environmental engineering, conduct a number of pollution tests on a brick kiln — one that uses less wood, reduces air pollutants, and wastes less brick than those in general use. Ratanpal flew to South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique with the University’s Department of Environmental Sciences to identify projects for U.Va. engineering students to tackle in the future.

“ I really feel like my engineering education should benefit the people who need it most,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Ratanpal pursued opportunities for volunteer service under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders, an organization founded in France in 1971 on the model of Medecins Sans Frontiers [Doctors Without Borders]. Imported into the United States in 2000 and established at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the program quickly spread across the country to universities such as Columbia, UC-Berkeley, Dartmouth and Virginia Tech.

Johnson first learned of the program through a friend at North Carolina State University, where a group already had been organized. He founded the U.Va. chapter of Engineers Without Borders in March 2002 to enable graduate and undergraduate students to travel to developing countries and use their knowledge to provide sustainable and long-term benefits. About 50 U.Va. students attended the first meeting, more than a dozen attend biweekly meetings and nearly 150 are on the organization’s mailing list, Johnson said.

The program has received institutional support from the University’s Center for Global Health, which funded Johnson’s trip to Mexico with a $1,700 grant, and the Department of Environmental Sciences, which covered Ratanpal’s travel expenses with a $1,600 grant.

The philosophy of the group determines what types of projects are selected, Johnson said.

“We think in terms of sustainability,” he said. “Environmental, economic and cultural sustainability are central to a successful project.”

The goal is for local communities to adopt the projects once the students leave, so the projects must be low-tech and low-cost, built with locally available materials that can be maintained by people with little training.

Projects also must be appropriate to the locality. Instead of suggesting projects to the communities, students help the residents address problems they identify for themselves.

“ A project should have a minimal effect on lifestyle, but a maximum effect on quality of life,” Johnson said. “It is important to tread lightly on local practices.”

The U.Va. group is planning a trip to Mexico next summer. While in Juarez, Johnson discovered that 2.5 million people were using the same aquifer for all their needs — water for drinking, washing and irrigation. But the underground source of water was inadequate for such heavy demand and couldn’t replenish the supply of clean, potable water fast enough.

So, a team of students is preparing to travel to Juarez next year to construct simple water distillers from readily available materials — such as solar distillers made from the metal roofs of old buses —to purify ground water and increase the supply of clean drinking water. In addition, each student will complete a secondary project, ranging from compiling new databases of social and scientific information to studies of violence toward women.

“ The people benefiting from the projects will be the poor people living in a ring around Juarez, in areas called colonias,” said Johnson. “Many of these people are employed in foreign factories but their pay doesn’t allow for a high standard of living.  Sanitation is minimal, people build their own homes from found materials, and many are actually squatting on other people’s land.”

So far, the U.Va. engineering students have had no trouble finding worthwhile projects, but locating sources of funding has been more challenging.

“ There are thankfully a few scholarships we can apply for, such as the Center for Global Health Award or the Harrison Award,” Johnson said. “The problem is that, for those awards, we can’t apply as an engineering team, only individually. It would be great if the Engineering School could find a way to fund team projects like these, projects that are both educational and humanitarian, in the future.”

Luckily, the low-tech projects do not require much funding to be high-impact, he said. Each team member going to Juarez this summer needs only about $2,000 to cover travel and living expenses for the six-week project.

The group welcomes any students who wish to join, Johnson said.

lthough mechanical and civil engineering students are needed, students with cultural and linguistic skills are also necessary. “The Engineers Without Borders program certainly needs more than technical knowledge,” Johnson said.


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