Group readies for Guatemala volunteer trip

Engineers Without Borders will travel to a village to fix an irrigation system.

by Vanessa Nyarko

The University of Minnesota’s Engineers Without Borders program is gearing up to spend spring break in Guatemala.

Students will build improvements for irrigation systems in a small agricultural village, Agua Caliente, which will help its citizens grow an important cash crop — blackberries.

The berries grow on top of the mountains in that region, so the students designed new valves that will improve the way pumps propel water up the mountain for the crops.

The group has already built prototype valves, which were critiqued by professional engineers to ensure their effectiveness.

Students last visited Agua Caliente in August to fix a dam, when community members told them the irrigation system for blackberry farming also needed work — so the group made plans to fix that this month.

When Engineers Without Borders begins a project, it makes a five-year commitment to monitor the community and takes steps to ensure the projects are effective.

“They don’t just go in, build a project and then leave,” said Kelly Stifter, the group’s president and junior studying physics, astrophysics and math.

In addition to being responsive to the community’s concerns, almost every project that Engineers Without Borders takes on comes from requests by community members that are sent to the group’s national headquarters, said Jesse Kasim, the group’s vice president and biomedical engineering sophomore.

The group has held several meetings each week leading up to the Guatemala trip, and it has two other projects in the works.

Students are also making design plans for a rainwater harvesting system at a school in Uganda and expansions to an irrigation system to help coffee famers in that area, Stifter said.

The group plans to take an assessment trip to Bolivia this summer, where students will seek out their next project. Stifter said there are issues with finding clean drinking water in the region, so Engineers Without Borders may be able to help.

The University group has taken on projects in other countries since its inception in 2005, and Engineers Without Borders’ national leadership may soon allow groups to take on domestic projects, Kasim said.

Projects cost $40,000 on average, and taking on work in the United States could be easier and cheaper for the group.

“We’re making a big difference [in other countries],” Kasim said, “but we don’t have to go that far away to find people that need help.”