Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB) is a non-profit organization that provides pro bono engineering services and technical advisement to underserved communities around the world. As a student at NC State University, I had the privilege of traveling on an assessment trip to Sierra Leone that led to a later generation of students implementing a groundwater well and treatment system for a school there. I now serve as a mentor for the same program and recently went on an assessment trip for a new project seeking to implement a similar system at a sister school in the same area.
Donating time and skills to underserved communities that cannot otherwise afford either is deeply rewarding. It amplifies the impact of sound infrastructure design because the benefits to the community are so large. The alternative in these communities is to simply not wash their hands or spend hours each day collecting water. It is doubly rewarding to serve as a mentor for projects like this, guiding engineering students who want to be the change they wish to see in the world.
Working in a Challenging Environment
For all the emotional reward of helping people, there are real skills to be gained by volunteering with organizations like EWB-USA and working in challenging conditions. Infrastructure projects in countries like Sierra Leone are challenging. Regulations are less clear and enforcement is variable. Material availability is limited. Services that we can rely on in the U.S., like cellular data or 24/7 electricity, are inconsistent. Operations and maintenance planning sometimes involve helping the community devise the first tax system they’ve ever had. In these situations, an American engineer must broaden their horizons and think outside the box. I learned this through personal experience.
The only access to the school in Sierra Leone is up a hill so steep that normal drilling rigs cannot make it to the top. Roadway design standards are only applicable to new government-funded roads. The students will have to find a local driller with a smaller tow-behind rig as a work around. In addition, construction contracts are not as legally enforceable as in the U.S. We will have to be diligent during contract negotiations to assess the trustworthiness of the driller. Materials standards are also different and less rigorously adhered to, meaning PVC pipe cannot be assumed to be standard, consistent sizes. Each load of pipe may need to be inspected and measured by the team to ensure they meet the design purpose.
These challenges offer new and different perspectives on otherwise routine engineering projects such as designing a groundwater well. Lessons learned in Sierra Leone can be brought back to the U.S. in the form of a broader base of problem solving perspectives for future projects.
Supporting the Next Generation
EWB projects offer a wealth of information and experience for engineering students. The practical application of what they just learned in school is an experience they would otherwise not have. For instance, the NC State students loved being able to do an old-school survey with a transit and grade rod. They also have an opportunity to practice project management and communicating with a client across a large cultural barrier. These are skills that are valuable to client-management and marketing that would otherwise be decades away for them, but will make them better engineers even in entry-level positions.
Volunteering on an EWB project also engenders an appreciation for infrastructure design that is hard to develop without travelling to a place without it. It motivates me to continually work towards high-quality designs and efficient project delivery because our work truly benefits our entire community. It also makes me proud of the support Mead & Hunt gives to volunteer engineering and mentoring activities.