Engineers Without Borders partnered with a community in Northern Thailand to install a water filtration system. Abbie Bullen | Courtesy Photo

Deep in the hills of Northern Thailand, the people of Pa Kloi transformed a group of five Cal Poly students.

In December 2017, an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) team installed a project that was years in the making: a slow sand filtration system to provide a clean, sufficient water source to Pa Kloi, a rural community of about 125 people in Northern Thailand near the Burmese border.

Five students on the Thailand travel team went to Pa Kloi in December 2017. Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo
Five students on the Thailand travel team went to Pa Kloi in December 2017. Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo

EWB is a nationwide organization that facilitates engineering projects abroad to help developing communities fulfill their needs. Cal Poly’s chapter of more than 200 members has five different project teams. Each team partners with a community for five years at a time to work on development projects. Along with the Thailand team, the longest standing team, Cal Poly’s chapter has a Malawi team, a Nicaragua team, a Fiji team and a local team that works in San Luis Obispo County.

Electrical engineering junior Cole Cucinella is one of the Thailand team’s project managers. He said EWB stands apart from other development organizations.

“We’re not just dropping something off,” Cucinella said. “There’s a huge education aspect of it all.” 

The Thailand team gave Pa Kloi community members instruction manuals so they could learn to use and maintain the project. Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo

Despite a language barrier, the team provided the Lahu people of Pa Kloi with resources to understand the project and learn maintenance procedures. The team gave them instruction manuals with translations and diagrams.

“We have community members who are really hyped on it,” Cucinella said. “It’s incredible to see all these people who don’t have the education we have just huddle around these diagrams, excited to learn about how this biosand filter kills E. coli when it’s just sand. That’s some of the coolest stuff ever.”

Learning on both ends

While the Cal Poly team helped the people of Pa Kloi learn about the filtration system, the community helped teach the students as well.

“We had such an idea about how things should go down in our heads and we get there and they use a piece of bamboo and a machete and get things done a hundred times better in a way we wouldn’t have thought [of],” Cucinella said.

Side by side, the Lahu people and the Cal Poly team carried more than 100,000 pounds of sand and gravel in 50-pound rice bags on their backs to deliver to the filtration system at the top of a steep hill.

Many community members left their day jobs to help with the project. Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo
Many community members left their day jobs to help with the project. Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” Cucinella said. “It was such grueling labor.”

Many people in Pa Kloi left their day jobs and volunteered their time to help with the filtration project over the course of three weeks. If a problem came their way, they were eager to find a way to fix it.

“It became a running joke that whenever a community member disappeared, he or she would surely return in minutes with the perfect solution to the problem,” mechanical engineering junior Gabrielle Bullen said.

Understanding differences

When the water filtration project began, the team’s main goal was to efficiently create a functioning filtration system. But understanding the community’s customs and values turned out to be just as important.

“They had to try and understand the village’s interests, their goals and their lifestyle, which is obviously so much different from the students’, or any of ours,” senior technical mentor Dan Johnson said.

The Lahu people believe separate water sources should not be crossed, as they each hold associated spirits. When waters cross, they believe the spirits can clash, become unhappy and bring conflict to the community.

When the EWB team suggested better allocation from two separate water sources, they quickly learned the plan would not align with the community’s values.

“If we went in there arrogantly and decided what we thought was the best solution and just did it, they wouldn’t have used it,” Cucinella said. “They wouldn’t have touched it. They wouldn’t have believed in it.”

This is why community assessment is the essential first step of any EWB project. In March 2017, months before the implementation trip, the team first took an assessment trip to meet with the Lahu people face-to-face.

This step in the process for each team ensures that they fully understand the community’s needs through an assessment trip. Once they better understand these needs, the team returns to Cal Poly to work on a design. From there, the design must be approved by engineering professionals. They then travel back for the implementation trip.

Cal Poly EWB President Jessica Taylor said assessment trips allow the Cal Poly team to learn about the community members’ needs aside from basic logistics.

“You learn about the people in the community and how they operate first,” environmental engineering senior Taylor said.

Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo

The application and assessment process is unique to EWB. Johnson said it may be part of the reason the Thailand team has found success in their project so far. It assures both parties are working toward the same goal.

“I think there’s a huge issue with development where college students will use the developing world as an engineering playground — just coming in and dropping something off,” Cucinella said.

He said this approach can lead to designing projects that communities may not have wanted in the first place. In these situations, if something goes wrong, there is no inclination to fix it.

“We are not the Western superheroes coming in to give someone in need a project that’s going to work forever,” Cucinella said.

When unexpected problems arise, EWB aims to provide ways to fix them. They use locally purchased parts in their designs, so if something breaks, the community can buy the parts to fix.

Even after implementation, the Thailand team continues to partner with the Lahu people to ensure the filtration system is running as planned. The next step in the partnership is a water source protection project. The team plans to travel back to Pa Kloi in December 2018.

“It’s important to us to maintain relationships with our communities and not just leave them after a project,” Taylor said.

Shaping tomorrow’s engineers

Cal Poly’s EWB chapter receives guaranteed funding from the College of Engineering. While much of the funding goes toward the project itself, a portion pays for the students’ travel fares.

“There are times where I’ve questioned if it’s worth it. There’s a much more efficient way to take the money we spend and complete an engineering project in a community, but it’s so much more than just going to a place and implementing a project,” Taylor said.

The team came back to Cal Poly with experience under their belt and a new perspective on engineering. The partnership in Pa Kloi taught the team engineering outside the classroom and outside their comfort zones.

“Engineering for people is different than just building a system,” Bullen said.

Cucinella fondly remembered the last day of the Pa Kloi water project. More than 30 community members had hauled heavy sandbags on their backs all day. After weeks of labor, the project was finally nearing completion. Cucinella lifted one of the final bags for the last sand dump that finished the project.

The implementation project took three weeks to complete. Gabrielle Bullen | Courtesy Photo

“The dust cleared and the sand settled and all these people were sitting on the ground underneath because we had just finished after weeks of construction,” Cucinella said. “I remember I just said, ‘Done,’ and they all said ‘Ah bo u ja,’ which means ‘Thank you.’ And I just shouted from the top of the scaffolding, covered in dirt on my face, and I said, ‘Techimahae,’ which means ‘No worries’ in Lahu. It was just all these people, laughing at this dumb, dirty, goofy white guy, covered in dirt and sweating, about to faint, trying to say ‘No worries’ in their language. It was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had.”

The team returned to the U.S. one day before Winter 2017 began. Campus seemed the same; the team recognized the familiar bustle of students shuffling from class to class. They continued plugging numbers and solving equations in their classes, but some found new value in their work.

“Engineers are often taught how to solve problems, but not how to find them,” Taylor said. “We are not taught about how our work can impact other groups of people. We’ll make the world a better place by giving this education to students.”

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