Rather than skiing at Lake Tahoe or shopping at the local malls, eight members of the Cal Poly Engineers Without Borders (EWB) club spent much of the holiday season constructing and testing a water filtration system for the hill tribe village of Mae Nam Khun in Thailand.

The group recently gave a presentation about their trip and the water filtration project to the rest of the Cal Poly Engineers Without Borders chapter.

The project began earlier in 2005 when students were asked to assess the village’s drinking water system. The students discovered that school children were getting sick because of unsanitary living conditions, and decided to construct and install a slow sand filtration system to improve the village’s water quality.

“It’s amazing to participate in a project like this from beginning to end,” said Eileen Mick, the project manager and a Cal Poly engineering graduate. “We do stuff like this in our classes, but it’s never something – that we actually get to see through all the way – especially something that will impact people’s lives the way this did.”

The slow sand filter, while it may seem rudimentary to engineering students, is actually a large tank filled with different sizes of gravel that helps clean the water through the process of biodegradation. Putting the water through the filter slowly, Mick said, encourages the natural growth of bacteria, which eats up all the “bad stuff” in the water and provides a microbial treatment.

“It’s sort of like a giant Brita filter – but instead of what Brita puts in its filters, it’s filled with a bunch of different-sized gravel,” Mick said.

She added that the Cal Poly club became involved in the project after Dan Garbely, a Cal Poly alumnus and current president of the Western chapter of Engineers without Borders, suggested that the club “tailor a project similar to the projects proposed by the University of California Santa Barbara and University of Seattle chapters.

The two other colleges designed and constructed an elementary school dormitory and a septic system for other villages in Thailand, Mick said.

“It’s really hard for us – a small student chapter – to take on the whole water distribution and filtration system, so we had to narrow down (the project) and we decided just to focus on building the town one filter,” Mick said.

The students were responsible for choosing and transporting the materials needed for developing and assembling the filter as well as personal transportation and funding. Most of the money, Mick said, was collected from sponsors and the rest was raised through yard sales in addition to a benefit event at Baja Fresh in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Near the end of the project, village locals invited the students and other team members to a cultural celebration filled with dancing, singing, joke-telling and lots of laughter, co-project manager and fellow Cal Poly graduate student Mike Borger said.

Borger described one instance where he and his fellow team workers were asked to share a cultural song with the villagers. At a loss for what to do, the students decided to sing something everyone would know: the Hokey Pokey.

“It was a riot,” he said. “Right after we were done they yelled, ‘Do another one!’”

Borger also said that he and his fellow club members will remember the people of Mae Nam Khun for their upbeat attitude and eagerness to lend a helping hand.

“Everyone (in the village) will just go out of their way to help; they were all looking for every little opportunity to help,” he said. “And it is part of their culture to laugh no matter what – Thailand is even nicknamed ‘The Land of Smiles.’”

Engineers Without Borders meets every Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m. in building 13, Room 118. The club is open to all different majors and is in the process of trying to get students with expertise in other fields to go on the next Thailand trip. The club hopes to make a return trip to Thailand within the next year.

For more information about EWB, visit their Web site at www.ewb.calpoly.edu.

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