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UConn engineering majors travel abroad to perform humanitarian work

By Garrett Gianneschi
On September 25, 2009

There is a lake in Ethiopia where the once-clear shore has become a milky green, where the once fresh air has become rank and stifling, where the once clean water has now become toxic. Probably the only thing that hasn't changed in the area is that the surrounding community still drinks the water even though it is proven to be hazardous. But the recently established Making efforts to relieve the UConn chapter of Engineers Without Borders is making efforts to relieve the decaying area of unsafe water.

EWB-UConn is part of a larger international organization established in 2002 by a chance conversation between University of Colorado professor, Bernard Amadei, and his landscaper two years prior to its establishment, according to the EWB-USA official website.

EWB-UConn is a campus organization that hopes to develop internationally aware and responsible engineers by bringing them to areas in the world where engineering solutions are most needed.

"Usually [in class] you are just looking at this little system but you don't get this overall sense of how I am helping the world," said EWB-UConn's president, Ethan Butler a 3rd-semester student.

Members of the group recently ventured to Thailand to aid a remote community. The community had little energy for cooking and their food supply suffered when cold winter months rotted their seeds. But EWB-UConn showed them how to develop primitive devices to keep their seeds fertile through winter and harvest methane for cooking from cow manure. To solve these problems, communities such as these don't just need a solution, they need a sustainable solution that is easy for the people to replicate and does not require much money, said Butler. The type of engineering needed to solve these problems calls for a holistic look at the community.

Thailand serves as a precedent for what the group hopes to accomplish in their two current projects: the Lake Koka region of Ethiopia and Granada, Nicaragua.

The Lake Koka region has two issues: toxic water and water-borne diseases like malaria, which is the second leading cause of death in Africa behind AIDS, according to The ideas for how to handle the Lake Koka situation is still in its developing stages. They can dig wells by finding aquifers that aren't contaminated, but clean aquifers are not rare, according to Christina Natale, a member of EWB-UConn who went to Ethiopia last summer.

The community outside Granada, Nicaragua suffers from a road that becomes impassable any time there is rain; cutting the village off from the city and preventing attention to medical emergencies, trade and police from monitoring the area, according to Butler. The project is further along in its development than Lake Koka, and has received the "go-ahead" from EWB-USA to start implementation, according to Butler. But the project is proving more expensive than the Thailand project, according to Professor Mekonnen Gebremichael, an advisor to the group.

Raising funds and raising awareness for the group has become Butler's main focus for this upcoming year. "Make sure people keep their eyes open because we have a lot of event coming up." On Friday, October 16 at 11:00 a.m. in the SU Theatre, founder Bernard Amadei will be discussing the groundbreaking social and humanitarian achievements when engineers apply their expertise to challenges across the globe.

Starting an EWB chapter at UConn was attempted in 2006 but had trou\uble getting off the ground, according to Professor Amvrossios Bagtzoglou, an advisor to the group. The idea for a UConn chapter was taken up two years later, in 2008, by the now-graduated Nathan Barlow. Barlow and a couple others financed their own trip to Nicaragua to explore solutions in repairing the heavily damaged road. From this project came recognition by EWB-USA which in turn enabled the UConn chapter to be established in 2008. "Overall I feel last year it was a very shaky start as to whether we were established, this year we are definitely established," said Butler.

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