The Oregonian: Portland State University students use engineering skills to improve life in other countries
Author: Jillian Daley, Special to The Oregonian
Posted: January 2, 2013

Read the original story in The Oregonian here.

Portland State University students are helping children attend school more often in Nicaragua, bringing solar power to a home for seniors nearby and improving sanitation in communities in Ecuador.

Nine members of Portland State University's Engineers Without Borders-USA chapter, and two faculty mentors spent two weeks earlier this month working on projects that will improve the quality of life for people in need.

Members of the local chapter, created in 2006, are but a sample of the 12,000-member national nonprofit, founded in 2002. But, even a small group can achieve a lot once they arrive on a work site. Theparent organization, not affiliated with Doctors Without Borders, selects the projects.

Portland State University students for four years have been working to address storm water woes at a primary school in Jinotepe, Nicaragua. It is the group's most challenging project in terms of finding the right design, but the students are getting close, said Theo Malone, president of the PSU chapter.  

The problem arose when the city changed the slope and material of a street next to the school, called Dulce Nombre de Jesus Cristos, or "sweet name of Jesus Christ," Malone said. Rain water runs off the road's hard-packed surface, and the flow creates a barrier of dirty water between the students and their school. Mosquitoes are drawn to the area.

This month, the young engineers installed a prototype of a system that reroutes the water to a large, covered, gravel-filled hole designed to slowly let the water sink into the earth.

PSU senior and team leader Andy Kading said he expects the test version will not catch all of the water during heavy precipitation, but it will keep the school drier until the team can return, possibly in June.

"We're trying to make sure we build a long-lasting and functional system," said Kading, 32, a civil engineering major. 

The students are working on another project in the area at an elder care facility called Hogar de Jinotepe, or "home of Jinotepe." Since 2008, students' work has included upgrading the electrical system, adding structural reinforcement for roofs and installing a water tank and tower.


Students now are determining how to replace a corroded water tower, one of three on the site. They plan to help locals establish a business to manufacture and distribute water towers. Partnering with the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation,  the students plan to install solar panels this June.

Meanwhile, other students addressed sanitation issues in the Esmeraldas province of Ecuador, said Rob Chapler, a PSU senior majoring in civil engineering. Locals there now buy costly, poor quality water off of delivery trucks and splash it on themselves to bathe, said Chapler, 27. Many houses lack latrines.

The project, a partnership with another Engineers Without Borders-USA group, is to bring showers, latrines and hand-washing stations to four communities in the province. The facilities will use free, fresh rainwater.

During its last trip, the group assessed what one community wants in terms of sanitation, using household surveys. The young engineers plan to install the improvements there this summer.

"Everybody in the community is really warm and friendly," said Chapler, a trip leader. "They really appreciated that we cared about them from so far away."

Donations support the local chapter's trips, and students pay for half of a plane ticket. Malone said this makes sure the participants are invested in the projects, not the adventure.

He did not participate on-site for the most recent projects but helped orchestrate them, saying he enjoyed other on-location work he has done through the organization in the past.

"I definitely enjoy the emotional connection with the people I work, and the idea of trying to build a better world is what got me involved in engineering," said Malone, 26, who is working toward a master's in environmental engineering.

He said his group also teaches the locals how to execute some of the tasks themselves.

"Not only are we there to address issues, we're also looking at how to help the community uplift itself," said Malone. "Once they realize they have the ability and the capacity to do this, it's just very uplifting and empowering, and then, they can solve some of these problems on their own."