Engineering a sustainable future

Engineers Without Borders students travel to Guatemala to complete service projects.

After six long days of construction, the Kansas State University Engineers Without Borders (EWB) team was greeted by the sound of rumba players, laughing children and bright smiles from the community members in El Amate, Guatemala. After enjoying a large meal, everyone danced to celebrate the progress made and friendships formed in such a short period of time.

Engineers Without Borders is an international organization that works to empower communities through sustainable engineering solutions. The K-State chapter, made up of around 45 engineering students, dedicates itself to this mission through its partnership with the El Amate community in Guatemala.

“We actually got started because of Irma, a K-State student. She was born in Guatemala and moved to the United States when she was 10, so she was able to connect with the El Amate community and helped activate our partnership,” said Zach Newman, junior in architectural engineering and project manager for K-State EWB.

In the past five years, K-State EWB has built a new school and a bathroom connected to a sanitary latrine system with a handwashing station and running water.

In January 2020, nine members traveled to El Amate to start the next phase of their sustainability project: a retaining wall.

Erosion from heavy rainfall during the wet season in Guatemala inspired the building of the retaining wall.

“The rain was flowing off the property and forming ditches, which were creeping up on our previous projects. So, we decided to build the retaining wall, which helps drainage on the property primarily and optimizes their usable space,” said Caleb Cox, junior in mechanical engineering and vice president of K-State EWB.

All project planning, from the initial design to the final checklist, is completed at K-State to make sure the team is as prepared as possible.

But like many things, no matter how much planning is done, somehow everything changes.

“We came across some rock when we were digging the foundation for the retaining wall,” Caleb said. “Instead of digging through it, we decided to change the design. We didn’t have the ability to sit down and find the best solution; we just had to make a decision and go with it. That was really challenging, but it was super cool too.”

On top of beginning this new project, the team conducted interviews with community members to measure community satisfaction, as well as gain insight on what the community wants for the school kitchen, K-State EWB’s next project.

These interviews, while necessary, proved to be a challenge for the team as they faced several language barriers.

“The community speaks Quiche, a Mayan language,” said Zach. “Fortunately, several community members speak both Quiche and Spanish, and three of our team members could speak Spanish. For most of our interviews we would go from English to Spanish to Quiche and then all the way back. So, our interviews took a lot longer than we initially planned.”

While there were many challenges, Caleb said the trip was worth it because he was able to go beyond the technicalities of engineering and make a positive impact on peoples’ lives.

“The entirety of the trip was incredible,” Caleb said. “Before we arrived, it was a lot of numbers, design and engineering work and not a lot of communication with the community. But once we arrived, we were completely immersed with the people this project impacted.”

Before any of these plans could come to fruition, the chapter had to come up with funds to pay for travel expenses and the materials they needed to build the retaining wall.

“We had some grant money left from EWB USA from our last trip, and that helped. But the total cost of each trip is over $20,000. So, we did a variety of fundraisers, from cleaning up after football games to creating a giving link at the KSU Foundation. Even with all of that, the team had to pay for most of their personal travel costs,” said Abby Kerber, senior in mechanical engineering and president of K-State EWB.

K-State EWB plans to build the kitchen for the El Amate school in January 2021. Additionally, the team plans to travel to Nicaragua, their most recent partnership, for an assessment trip of a water distribution project before the end of 2020.

“We’re able to provide the engineering know-how to design and plan physical buildings and systems in a foreign country, and we’re just students earning our degrees. That’s what sets us apart,” said Abby.

Visit here to learn more about how you can support K-State Engineers Without Borders.

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