While others were celebrating time off during winter break, Cal Poly’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders’ (EWB) members built six water filtration systems in Huai Nam Khun, a community in rural Thailand.

Mechanical engineering freshman Danny Stohr and eight other students from Engineers Without Borders helped install water filtration systems in rural areas of Thailand over winter break. Photo courtesy of Katelin Schroeder.

EWB is a national non-profit organization that “helps create a more stable and prosperous world by addressing people’s basic human needs by providing necessities such as clean water, power, sanitation and education,” according to the EWB website.

As part of its mission, the EWB Cal Poly members of the Thailand project have been working on providing clean drinking water to the Huai Nam Khun community since March 2005. The team visited the area nine times for assessment and implementation of the six slow sand filters, according to the EWB Cal Poly Thailand project’s website. They also built two more slow sand filters in December 2005 and June 2008.

Sam Tooley, a civil engineering freshman and  member of the Thailand team, said the trip did not go without difficulties when the groups’ sand filtering machine stopped working after an hour.

“We had seven giant truckloads of sand to sift through,” Tooley said. “And after our machines stopped working, we sat down with our headman and said, ‘All right, this can still happen, but now it’s on man power.’ And so we had 40 villagers show up every day, and they took off work pretty much and their holiday season to come help us sift their sand.”

Erland Mowinckel, a civil engineering graduate student, said in order to sort through all of the sand, the group and the villagers had to keep working into the night — even if they thought it was time to go home.

“They would get to a certain point where it was the stopping point for their day, and they would stop at like four whatever in the afternoon, and then they would start and go and prepare dinner and stuff like that,” Mowinckel said. “(At) four o’clock when everybody was sifting sand, they would kind of pack up and go home; one of us would say, ‘Wait a minute, you haven’t finished yet. You have to finish this tonight.’”

Even though the workload was heavy, the group wanted to build another water filtration system in another village as well.

But Josh Soliz, a civil engineering senior and co-project managers of the Thailand trip, said the village wanted two in order to “be fair.” Even so, Soliz said there were other areas that could use a similar water filtration system because of a trash problem.

“I can already think of four sites where we can put some sand filters in, putting up more systems,” Soliz said. “It’s kind of up to the community here, geographically how far do we put ourselves out?”

EWB Cal Poly also has two other international projects: a health center in Camilo Ortega, Nicaragua and a handheld corn de-kernelling system in Sanji, India.  The Nicaragua team finished the shell of their health center during the summer break of 2010.

Megan LeRoy, a civil engineering senior and one of the project managers for the Nicaragua team, said the shell of the health center is done. The group will now focus on erosion issues.

“Nicaragua has about a six month rainy season,” LeRoy said. “So, we need to go down and address erosion control and directing the water down our hill in a safer manner, so we don’t compromise the structure because the foundation is no longer stable.”

The India project team is the newest team and went to India for the first time in August 2010.

Kim Smith, a materials engineering junior and co-project manager for the India project, said the group had initially thought clean water would also be a problem in India, but had discovered this was not the case, causing them to pick a simpler project.

“When we went, we did a lot of water quality testing, and we found out the water is actually pretty clean,” Smith said. “It’s not the cause of their health problems. It’s more a sanitation problem.”

Since the team travels to foreign countries, language poses another problem. Schroeder said the Thai people were welcoming, but sometimes the language barrier was evident, especially in the more social settings.

“They’re always trying to give you all this food, and you don’t know how to say no, and, especially when we’re going to all of those like parties and stuff, we can’t talk to them at all,” Schroeder said. “So, it’s just a lot of head nodding and smiling going on. On the construction site, it’s easier to act out what you want to do, but when you’re sitting at a table with them, you’re just like, ‘OK.’”

EWB Cal Poly also welcomes all majors, not just engineers.

LeRoy said there were some things engineers are not as proficient at than others.

“The nice thing about English majors or business majors is that English majors write nicer and more flowy,” LeRoy said. “If you look at engineering writing, it is more technical. It’s always great to engage other disciplines.”

Aaron Opdyke, a civil engineering sophomore and president of EWB Cal Poly, said he hoped more people from other majors would join.

“I think the biggest problem we always have is non-engineers don’t want to join,” Opdyke said. “We need their help with these projects.”

Leroy said the group especially needs help with fundraising, since the projects can be very expensive.

“Engineers really don’t know how to fundraise, but marketing majors and business majors’ classes are figuring out ways to market projects and fundraise, and we really fail at fundraising,” Leroy said.

Daniel Stohr, a  mechanical engineering freshman and  member of the Thailand team, said he was thankful for the experiences EWB has given him.

“Every night I come home from an Engineers Without Borders meeting, I’m always thinking about what other people did,” Stohr said. “When I first came to school, it was like, ‘There better be something other than school going on, because I don’t want to study and then go party on the weekends: I want to do something more.’ It’s definitely been the highlight of my first year so far.”

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