Cal Poly’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is working on four separate projects in Fiji, Malawi, Nicaragua and locally, in Nipomo.

“Good intentions are not enough to have positive impacts on our partner communities,”  Cal Poly chapter president and mechanical engineering senior Kyle Ennis said.

The chapter was founded in 2005, and it partners with both local and global communities. The goal is to help others gain access to basic human needs such as water, food security, sanitation and education — or “the big four,” as Ennis calls it.

How EWB works

A partner organization in a community first applies to the EWB-USA. Different chapters can then view applications and decide if the project will be a good fit. This depends on how feasible the location is to travel to, and if members have the right knowledge of both the technical and cultural side of the project.

Ennis said that Spanish is commonly spoken as a second language among club members, which is beneficial for when they go to Nicaragua, where that is the official language.

“That’s a huge help when you can communicate directly with community members,” Ennis said.

Although they trust their translators, Ennis said communicating can seem like “a game of telephone” when someone has to translate, for example, from English to Thai and then Thai to a tribal language.

One of EWB’s partner communities is located in northern Thailand, where they helped install a slow sand filtration system for a clean water source. Engineers Without Borders | Courtesy
One of EWB’s partner communities is located in northern Thailand, where they helped install a slow sand filtration system for a clean water source. Engineers Without Borders | Courtesy

However, EWB-USA is ending all of its projects in Thailand since it is considered more developed than other counteries EWB works to aid. Because of this, Cal Poly is ending its program in Thailand after finishing a water filtration program that is now in use, according to Ennis.

What EWB members do

According to Ennis, 80 percent of all EWB projects end up focused around water.

In Nicaragua, EWB members had what Ennis calls a “half-distribution system” that was built 10 years ago, consisting of pipes coming from a water source. However, the pipes were not built deep enough into the ground. Now, they are breaching the surface and are either damaged or broken altogether.

There is no proper water filtration system in the community they are working with, leaving locals with only about six months worth of access to a consistent water source.

To fix this, members conducted a “standard water distribution project,” Ennis said. This means they drilled a productive well that will not only give locals access to water, but will also supply water to individual homes for everyday needs.

In Fiji, club members cannot build as many wells because the country consists of many small islands. However, they are building rainwater attachment systems on houses to collect water for the the dry season.

According to electrical engineering sophomore and EWB solar sub-team lead Jeffrey Romeo, after the club members are finished with implementing these systems, they are projected to double the capacity of water storage on their island.

Right now, Romeo and his team are working on creating a solar borehole, a solar-powered pump to distribute water to the community.

The boreholes were specifically requested by the community. However, according to Romeo, the project is not sustainable because the more water they use from the well, the more saltwater will intrude and therefore render it unusable.

“I think it’s a really good stepping stone to eventually make [the community] entirely sufficient on rainwater storage,” Romeo said.

EWB’s challenges

Working with the communities so closely has been both a challenge and a learning experience for club members.

“Typically engineers fall in love with a design that they really like for a certain type of thing, and then the community says, ‘No, we don’t want that, we want something different,’” Ennis said. “Now we’ve learned that we really need to listen to what the community wants, because in the past when we say, ‘Oh no, we know better,’ it has pretty much always gone wrong.”

“It’s about challenging our assumptions and our knowledge, and doing project-based work on other people’s terms.”

Romeo said that the most challenging aspect for him was figuring out how to answer questions halfway around the world, in a place he has never been to, and not being able to see what he is working on.

However, Ennis said the difference in excellence for the Cal Poly’s EWB chapter lies in the amount of support they are able to receive from professors and faculty on campus.

Faculty Member’s influence in EWB                 

College of Liberal Arts (CLA) professor and EWB faculty advisor Ryan Alaniz has been involved with the club since he first started at Cal Poly more than nine years ago. Alaniz lived in Central America for about two years and worked there for about 20.

“Because of that, I have a really solid knowledge of the culture, of the history,” Alaniz said.

When he first started working with EWB, club members had just finished building a $150,000 clinic in Nicaragua. However, the facility could not be used because it was built on private land, he said.

EWB members, he said, must consider political consequences as well as social constructs in each community.

“Engineers need the social sciences, and social sciences need engineers,” Alaniz said.

Alaniz said he loves working with EWB students, and believes they are passionate about their projects.

“They’re humble, so they know that they don’t know everything when they arrive in the country, and that they have a lot to learn from the people,” Alaniz said.

Because of the challenges they face working overseas, Alaniz said that students will be more equipped to handle the various challenges of the workforce post-graduation.

“It’s one thing to build a building in San Luis Obispo,” Alaniz said. “It’s something completely different to do it in a rural part of Nicaragua.”

CLA anthropology professor and EWB faculty advisor Dawn Neill has been working in Fiji since 2002, writing a dissertation as well as partnering with EWB since her start at Cal Poly in 2008.

Before she became involved largely, EWB had been working on a project in India. By the time Neill came in to help, the project was ready to come to an end, and many people were shocked that an award-winning engineering project had not produced the results that had been expected.

When a project arose in the Fijian islands, EWB reached out to Neill for her expertise.

“As Westerners, we have power; we have privilege,” Neill said.

According to Neill, a majority of students that come through Cal Poly, as well as many other higher education institutions, are very often white and middle class and possess an idea of “ethnocentrism,” the belief that one’s culture is superior to another.

However, Neill hopes to challenge students and people to try to see it from another perspective.

It’s about “transformation,” Neill said. “It’s about challenging our assumptions and our knowledge, and doing project-based work on other people’s terms.”

Since starting with EWB, Neill said she has noticed a large transformation in the way club members interact with the communities.

“There’s more of a culture of internationalization, and global citizenship, that’s grown,” Neill said.

EWB at home

As well as working globally, EWB is also involved in projects in the country’s own backyard. 95 percent of the work they do is in San Luis Obispo, according to Ennis.

In Nipomo, the club has partnered with Jack’s Helping Hand, a local social service organization that assists children with special needs and cancer, to help build a more accessible equestrian facility.

“So kids and adults that normally are not physically able to ride horses, what they work on is different solutions to get it so they can do that,” Ennis said.

Specifically, they will build a washing station for the horses, which Ennis said is much more complicated than one might think, given the weight and size that horses are.

Because there are four teams with around 20-25 people on each, EWB is not able to send everyone overseas.

“Not everyone gets to go and so we try to be really transparent that if you’re in the club to travel, you’re not there for the right reason,” Romeo said.

The club’s next trips will be to Nicaragua and Fiji this Summer Quarter 2020, and they will take about four to six students on each trip.

Correction: The reason Cal Poly is ending their program in Thailand has been corrected.

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