Building a better engineer

EWB provides clean water for villagers while teaching engineers a thing or two

By Diane Dierking

Santa Rita, a village with about 250 inhabitants, is located in northern Peru at an elevation of about 1,000 ft. above sea level. Paul Erickson, a civil engineering master’s degree student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, says Señor Huachca, 65, still works in the fields of Santa Rita every day trying to eke out an existence.

C.A.R.E. Peru designed a water system for the village that would pipe water from a spring; Señor Huachca was one of many villagers who helped dig a two-mile trench for the system’s PVC piping. The villagers did what they could to maintain the system, which was prone to leaks and difficult to repair.

Señor Huachca had no running water in his home until Engineers Without Borders (EWB) arrived. Erickson, a member of the student chapter of EWB on the Boulder campus, was part of the team of six students and two professionals that went to Peru last summer.

Erickson says his group helped improve the drinking-water system in Santa Rita and has trained people about how to maintain and repair it. While his group was installing isolation valves and PVC piping, a second group was evaluating the village’s sanitation needs. The sanitation project has been approved and a team soon will be leaving for Peru to implement it.

EWB is a nonprofit, international humanitarian organization that was founded in Colorado in 2000. EWB’s vision is that of a world in which all people have access to adequate sanitation, safe drinking water and the resources to meet other engineering needs (e.g. building a bridge or medical center). All projects incorporate the conceptual, design, implementation and monitoring phases of engineering projects.

The U.S. branch of the organization is made up of student chapters, which are located at universities throughout the country. There are two professional chapters in Colorado and two Professional Partner groups on the West Coast, members of which are practicing engineers.

Dick Herring, former executive director of EWB and now a board member, says volunteers come from various engineering disciplines; many are civil or environmental engineers, others are mechanical, electrical or chemical engineers.

Dave Williams, a mechanical engineer and member of the West Coast Professional Partners group, says a trip he took to Haiti in 2002 for EWB changed his life. At the time, he was an engineering student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He marvels at how a small amount of innovation “can have a dramatic effect on the way people live.”

Herring says being part of an EWB team provides not only practical education for the students, but an awareness of social responsibility for all who are involved.
This is what attracted Dan Garbely, a civil and environmental engineer who is president of the West Coast Professional Partners group. He says EWB gives him opportunities for personal fulfillment that his day-to-day job does not.

Funding for projects comes from private sources on a project-by-project basis. CH2M Hill, Englewood, Colo., has provided corporate sponsorship; DuPont, Wilmington, Del., is one of several other companies that has contributed to EWB. Herring says many student chapters conduct their own fund-raising activities to provide capital for projects.

About 20 projects have been completed; Herring expects 30-50 to be finished in the next year. Most teams are on site for about a week, making it possible for students and professionals to complete a project without taking a lot of time away from work or school.

Practicing engineers can work on projects by joining a student team or professional chapter and can provide expertise on an as-needed basis. Engineers also can be involved by reviewing projects, mentoring students, and assisting in the design and implementation of projects.

Erickson says Señor Huachca celebrated his new indoor plumbing by wearing his best clothes and biggest smile to a village meeting. “I’m glad to say we were a part of helping him out.”

EWB has taken on the noble task of improving the lives of people throughout the world, while building a sense of global community and responsibility in student and professional engineers. You too can be a part of the team: visit EWB's,, to learn how. 

Diane Dierking is senior editor of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail her at

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