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Engineers Without Borders brings diverse disciplines together to improve public health in local and international settings

April 10, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

As the name of this national student organization implies, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) was created to educate the next generation of students in sustainable engineering through real-world practice and problem solving. However, its parallel mission to benefit communities in need requires an all hands on deck approach; thus, broadening the scope of EWB to include students from an array of majors on projects that often focus on addressing public health issues both locally and abroad.

The USC chapter joined the national organization of more than 16,800 members in 2010. This non-profit humanitarian organization is committed to partnering with lower-income communities around the world in the areas of water supply, sanitation, energy, agriculture, civil works, structures and information. These student-run projects provide practical experience in project management and the application of the knowledge and skills that UofSC students gain from their programs of study.

The projects require contributions from a variety of disciplines, attracting students from the College of Engineering and Computing, Arnold School of Public Health, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Darla Moore School of Business. This melting pot of majors results in a core strength of the USC chapter: interdisciplinary teams of motivated students from a variety of colleges and areas of study.

These are absolutely top notch students who organize and lead these projects themselves; faculty members and engineering professionals just serve as advisors. They come to EWB for hands-on, boots on the ground experience that rounds out what they learn through their courses.

-Jim Burch, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Every EWB project is broken into phases (e.g., applying/writing project proposals, site assessments, design, implementation, etc.), and each phase includes quality control and quality assurance measures. The team is overseen by both faculty mentors and professional engineers.

Arnold School Associate Professor Jim Burch (Epidemiology and Biostatistics) has served in both safety officer and faculty mentor roles for EWB. His passion for international projects, particularly in Latin America (see story on his recent Fulbright Specialist trip to Chile), led Burch to find USC’s EWB chapter in 2012, and he’s volunteered his guidance and support ever since. 

“These are absolutely top notch students who organize and lead these projects themselves; faculty members and engineering professionals just serve as advisors,” says Burch. “They come to EWB for hands-on, boots on the ground experience that rounds out what they learn through their courses.”

Burch also emphasizes the abundance of opportunities for students to contribute and learn about other fields through interdisciplinary collaboration. “There is a natural fit between public health and engineering,” he says. “These projects are not only ideal for engineering students, but they provide excellent opportunities for students in public health, biochemistry, business, marketing, environmental health, and many other fields.”

Recent local projects include partnering with UofSC’s Sustainable Carolina to design and build a water fountain that uses filtered water from the rain water running off a dormitory roof. Similar projects include building irrigation systems for the Honors Residence Hall Gardens using rain barrels that collect rain from the dorm roof. The students also lead Lego Robotics teams at local elementary schools.

There is a natural fit between public health and engineering. These projects are not only ideal for engineering students, but they provide excellent opportunities for students in public health, biochemistry, business, marketing, environmental health, and many other fields.

-Jim Burch, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Between 2011-2015, the USC chapter completed their first international project: assisting with irrigation in a small town in Ecuador. La Victoria de Las Lajas, a coffee producing community of about 1,500 people, was struggling to grow coffee during the dry season, impeding their economic development. By partnering with the town, the EWB-USC team designed and built a 1.6-mile irrigation pipeline to provide a sustainable source of water from a nearby mountain spring, and, working side by side with community members, completed the project in 2014. .

EWB also designed a public health curriculum focused on the importance of water quality for the local grade school and conducted a public health needs assessment by interviewing local stakeholders about issues in their community that impact public health. Each project engages community members throughout the process and ends with sustainability measures, such as a ‘maintenance and repair’ training manual that was translated into Spanish so that the communities can self-sufficiently maintain and build on the improvements made by the EWB team.

The next project will aid the nearby town of El Cedro, a smaller community of 500 residents in the same region with an even longer pipeline (16 km or ~10 miles) and a health-related problem. Their drinking water contains elevated levels of coliform bacteria, cracked sections (due to UV exposure) in the pipeline that draws water from a spring, dormant water tanks, and other structural issues. Whether the project will involve repairs to the 10 miles of existing pipeline, creating a new water filtration system, establishing a robust sanitation system for the current water supply, educating the community on safe options for treating water to make it safe for consumption, or some combination of these solutions, EWB will partner with this community to make their water safe to consume again.

What is exciting about the El Cedro project is that we are trying to provide clean water, which is such a real engineering problem all around the world and one I have been passionate about for years.

-Sabrina Carroll, El Cedro Project Leader

“To me, this project is about preventing diseases,” says Public Health Officer and President-Elect William Rivers, who is studying biochemistry with a minor in Spanish and may pursue a dual MD-Ph.D. In his current role, Rivers leads the development and implementation of the ideas and plans for water purification on the El Cedro project and any health-related aspects of local projects.

“What is exciting about the El Cedro project is that we are trying to provide clean water, which is such a real engineering problem all around the world and one I have been passionate about for years,” says Sabrina Carroll, a mechanical engineering sophomore who had the opportunity to assist the student leader for the La Victoria project and is now leading the El Cedro project. “Knowing that EWB has the opportunity to apply our engineering skills to radically improve the quality of life for the individuals in El Cedro really puts what we are doing into perspective.” 

With the project still in its early stages, a team of EWB members will travel to El Cedro in May for a second site assessment visit. There are still many opportunities for students from a variety of disciplines to join the project.

One big thing that not many people know is that EWB is open to all majors! If anyone is passionate about helping others, there is a place for them in EWB.

-Sabrina Carroll, El Cedro Project Leader

“One big thing that not many people know is that EWB is open to all majors!” says Carroll. “Any one with background in public health could help with water treatment and testing, Spanish speakers are always needed, and business majors can get involved to help with grant writing and fundraising. While EWB emphasizes the work of engineers around the world, engineers can't do it on their own. If anyone is passionate about helping others, there is a place for them in EWB.” 

EWB projects are funded entirely through grants, fellowships, scholarships and donations. The USC chapter of EWB has garnered funding support for past projects due to successful applications for Magellan grants and funds from EWB-USA as well as the generosity of public and private sponsors and donors. In addition to volunteers, EWB is still looking for financial support. You can visit the USC-WEB chapter fund to make a tax deductible donation. Questions? Contact Treasurer and Fundraising Officers.

Position Year Contact Email
Treasurer Officer 2016-2017  Connor Brown  browncf4@email.sc.edu
Treasurer Officer  2017-2018  Tyler Brant  tbrant@email.sc.edu 
Fundraising Officer  2016-2017   Ola Shorinwa  shorinwa@email.sc.edu 
Fundraising Officer  2016-2017   Sean Thomas   sct@email.sc.edu 
Fundraising Officer  2017-2018  Jackson Matthews  tjm1@email.sc.edu 
Fundraising Officer  2017-2018 Ryan McGaughey  mcgaughr@email.sc.edu