Engineers Without Borders
U.Va. engineering students share their expertise
Alba Corral, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez
Saturday morning last summer, U.Va. engineering student
(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
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,
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
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
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
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
So far, the U.Va. engineering students have had no trouble
finding worthwhile projects, but locating sources of
funding has been
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
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,
and civil engineering students
cultural and linguistic
skills are also necessary. “The Engineers Without Borders program certainly
needs more than technical knowledge,” Johnson said.