Student engineers go global

by Heather L. Mueller

During winter break eight engineering students worked on the construction of a water pump and storage tank to improve the livelihoods of an indigenous Mayan community.

Proyecto Chimiya is a five-acre rural ecological community located near Comalapa, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. The land is owned by a local organization that focuses on using sustainable technologies, producing organic agriculture and developing community-recreation spaces such as a soccer field.

The soccer field is more than a park to the community, said Andrew Sander, an engineering graduate student. Use of the field requires paying a fee making its green grass and goal posts a source of income.

“You think about it – in the states we have parks all over, but in Guatemala, they just don’t have them,” Sander said.

Mechanical engineering graduate student Josh Quinnell said, “Children play on the sides of streets.”

Last March, two students from the group traveled to Guatemala to assess the site and the needs of the community. They found the small natural spring the community depended on for irrigation contained pesticides, fecal matter and other pollutants.

So when designing a solution to the community’s problem, the engineers dug deep – literally.

The new water pump and storage tank design involved digging to the underground water table in a ravine, constructing a 5-foot by 3-foot cement storage box, creating a custom-fitted pump and laying nearly 200 meters of piping from the ravine to the storage tank used to hold the clean water.

The group constructed what they could in Minnesota, making several trips to local hardware stores for the parts Jeremiah Jazdzewski, an environmental engineering student said.

“It was like murder to find the parts here,” he said.

But it was even harder to get supplies in Guatemala, said civil engineering senior Kris Langlie who created the recipe for the concrete mixture.

For nearly 12 days, eight students and four professionals from Engineers Without Borders loaded about 10,000 pounds of concrete mix down a three-story deep ravine in five-gallon buckets using a rudimentary rope and pulley system tied to nearby trees. The water gushing out of the ground made laying concrete difficult and dirty. At the end of each day, families in the community would cook dinner to show their appreciation.

“You could tell even though they had nothing, they went out of their way to make dinner as nice as possible,” Jazdzewski said, recalling the soot-laden walls and cattle-filled courtyard belonging to one woman.

Besides the construction of the pump, the group donated about 50 children’s books, 25 soccer balls and other equipment.

Although the trip was labor intensive, Jazdzewski said, “It was relaxing. No cell phone, no traffic or e-mail.”

The experience was invaluable to the group because they learned lessons that can’t be taught in the classroom, Sander said.

“It makes you a better engineer to work at a site,” he said. “You can’t reference a textbook, ask Google or reference the Internet. You have to go with what you know.”