Engineers Without Borders Constructs a Better World

From Thailand to Guatemala, UCLA's EWB chapter goes the distance for philanthropy.

UCLA Daily Bruin

By Sophie Rane, Bruin Contributor

IN THE VILLAGE of No Lae in Northern Thailand, 50 students currently attend school in a single small room with no power.

Engineers Without Borders UCLA, a group of students who work to develop environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects around the world, is currently working to improve schooling conditions in No Lae.

Jordan Spatz, a graduate student at Harvard and MIT, is currently heading the group's project to construct a new schoolhouse in the village.

The project came about as the result of a collaboration between Engineers Without Borders student groups from UCLA, University of Maryland and Columbia University, Spatz said.

In 2004, these three groups, the first student chapters of Engineers Without Borders, constructed a 10-room field hospital in Northern Thailand. The king of Thailand was so pleased with the success of the project that he requested, through the Thai Royal Foundation, that this same group of volunteers build a schoolhouse in No Lae, Spatz said.

The village of No Lae lies near the Burmese border, and many of the children in need of schooling in the area are the children of Burmese refugees, Spatz said.

"The school is really over capacity," said Steve Hunt, the club's president. "A lot of kids don't get to go to school."

"In L.A., we take it for granted that there is going to be a schoolhouse," Spatz said, "but that's not the case around the world."

The project, designed entirely by students, will provide three spacious new rooms for instruction, and will be completed in early January, Spatz added.

Spatz said that projects developed by the Engineers Without Borders club, including the current project in Thailand, are made possible by support and donations from numerous sponsors.

Another of the groups current projects aims to install rainwater collection systems in the village of Chocantariy in Guatemala.

The project is lead by Bart Forman, a doctorate student in the area of civil and environmental engineering.

Chocantariy lies on the continental divide, and has distinct rainy and dry seasons, each lasting about six months. During the rainy season, the collection of clean water for drinking and sanitation does not pose a problem for the people of the village. In the dry season, however, they must walk long distances to collect water from pools, which are often contaminated, Forman said. The collection systems built by the group would provide a clean, safe source of water for an additional three months during the area's dry season, he continued.

"We hope that this will help them to build a better life for themselves and get out of the peasant farming lifestyle," Forman said.

Karen Lee, a second-year chemical engineering student, spent eight days in Guatemala working on the project.

Lee said that she wanted to work with Engineers Without Borders in order to give back to those who are less fortunate.

"I feel like I have so many opportunities. I have so much to be thankful for," she said. "There are people living in other countries who don't have these opportunities at all."

Lee said that the people in Chocantiry expressed great interest and excitement in the group's work.

"When the people there saw what we were doing, there was a lot of encouragement," she said.

The group's projects allow engineering students to use the knowledge and hands-on experience they gain to provide aid to those in need, said Hunt.

"Working on these projects, you're doing exactly what you would do as a civil engineer," he continued.

"It's perfect for what I want to do," said fourth-year mechanical engineering student Julie Pasternack, the club's external vice president, who hopes to eventually work developing irrigation systems in South America.

"People get the notion, even engineers themselves, that engineers are in it to make a lot of money," Pasternack said. "This is a way you can use your knowledge to help others."

"When you get involved in a project, there is a great sense of satisfaction when you see the project constructed and helping people," said fourth-year civil and environmental engineering student Savoth Hy, the group's publicity chair. "When I meet new people at conferences and events, and tell them about the projects that have been constructed in the past and the progress that we have made on our current projects, they are usually pleasantly surprised."

The club's humanitarian work is not limited to engineering majors. Students of all majors help with fund raising and grant writing, Hunt said. He added that project leaders look for people who can speak the language when traveling in foreign countries.

The club also collaborates with other student groups on campus.

For example, Engineers Without Borders has looked over technical projects for Global Business Brigades, another humanitarian group on campus, Hy said. Forman agreed that students of all backgrounds can become involved in the group's work.

"We always need people to help with marketing, public relations, fund raising, and communications," Forman said.

"We're always looking for people to roll up their sleeves and dive in with the rest of us."

Published: Wednesday, November 19, 2008