Summer EWB Projects

Irrigating Projects in Foreign Lands

Summer: a time for students to relax and unwind from the rigors of yet another school year of challenging academic and social activities. Yet, for a group of passionate and dedicated Pratt engineering students, summer is the perfect time to apply the skills learned in Duke classrooms to real-life situations and settings.

Last summer, two groups of Duke engineering undergraduates did just that. Traveling to remote villages in Uganda and Bolivia as part of the Duke chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the students gained hands-on experience in engineering solutions to issues facing developing nations, and came to have a greater understanding of the political and economic implications of development projects.

Duke students have been active in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, since 2006, working with the Rural Agency for Sustainable Development (RASD), a local nongovernmental organization that assists the residents of Nkokonjeru in assessing their health and water usage needs. Among the major concerns identified was the need for access to clean, potable water, as well as efficient water fill stations, to combat malaria and improve quality of life. Starting in 2009, Andrew Mang, a junior mechanical engineering and economics double major at Duke, became the lead coordinator for this project.

Mang notes the personal and scientific aspects of the project as follows: “I was involved in interviewing farmers, village chiefs, town business leaders, and leaders of local schools to assess their wants and needs. I also collected various technical data at each water source, including GPS coordinates, flow rate, observations about usage patterns, and any special geography that set the water source apart from others.”

After analyzing data and statistics collected, the Duke Uganda team, led by Mang, designed a water collection tank and fill station for the rural town’s spring boxes. “We plan to visit in summer 2011 to install four fill stations in the most heavily used tanks,” Mang said. Fundraising efforts to finance this follow-up trip is going to be the team’s primary focus once the design work is complete.

Ben Gagne, a senior mechanical engineering major, served as project leader of a bridge construction project in Bolivia during the summer of 2009. Over the course of this visit, he and Phillip Danser, a senior environmental engineering and public policy major, learned of the local need for improved irrigation during the yearly dry season. This would improve the financial stability of the local village of Obrajes and help keep the adolescent population from leaving their family farms in search of work in the nearby cities.

In an assessment trip the following autumn, the team began exploring four possible irrigation methods: alternative energy (including wind and solar), ground water, irrigation channels, and a retention pond. Working closely with a nongovernmental agency called Water Transport in Obrajes, Danser contributed his expertise from an environmental engineering perspective, and performed a cost-benefit analysis. “We determined wind would not be strong enough to power a pump, and solar had low potential to work,” Danser said. “We left knowing there were three areas, 40 hectares each, that could work. In the end, we chose an area of undeveloped land to place a 60 to 80 meter-long pipe into an underground well.”

Much like the Uganda project, the primary focus of the Bolivia irrigation project this academic year has been fundraising for building materials and travel expenses. Duke’s sister chapter of EWB, called Excite Development, has received some assistance, in the form of a grant from the Kenan-Biddle Partnership, for collaboration with engineers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The Bolivia team hopes to utilize these funds to return to Bolivia again this summer to drill their well, install the pump, and assist locals in establishing and managing electrical power to the pump.

The lessons learned and experiences gained from these two EWB projects have gone far beyond technical expertise. As these trips coincided with the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the villagers shared their enthusiasm for the sport of soccer and, consequently, converted many of the Duke students into enthusiastic soccer fans. Through daily collaboration on matters such as sustainability and sports, students formed long-lasting relationships with the residents of their host villages. As Gagne said, “The relationship we have with the community of Obrajes is not one I would soon give up.”

Thus, through hard work and skill, team work and dedication, the Pratt students exceeded their goals, and provided a record of success that will be certain to inspire future Duke engineers to pursue even greater achievements in years to come.