For future engineers, altruism knows no bounds

Photo: Sacramento State Engineering Students
Sacramento State Engineering Students

Some students catch up on sleep during spring break. Some visit relatives. Some blow off steam at beach parties. And some build irrigation systems for small villages in developing countries.

The Sacramento State chapter of “Engineers Without Borders” went to Panama over the spring break to begin work on a project to provide irrigation water to a small village during the dry season.

“The students had a unique opportunity to see an infrastructure project from the beginning to the end,” says Professor Ed Dammel, who accompanied the four civil engineering and one mechanical engineering students.

Professor Saad Merayyan, the campus advisor for Engineers Without Borders projects, assisted the students in applying for the project through the Engineers Without Borders website. With the help of Dean Emir Macari and the industrial partners participating in the Civil Engineering Department’s “Evening with the Industry” event, Merayyan was able to secure funding for the group’s trip to Panama.

“Our students have a unique global perspective that many at other campuses don’t,” says Merayyan. “They’ve seen more of the world, many are bilingual, and they communicate and interact well with other cultures.”

The project was the first of two to three assessment trips to the village of Guabas Arribas in the Anton district of the Cocle Province, west of the Panama Canal. Implementation trips will follow, and a post-assessment visit will conclude the expeditions to the village.

“The temperature in Panama is the same year round, with highs in the mid-90’s and lows in the 70’s,” says Dammel. “The only change in the climate is the precipitation. The rainy season is typically mid-April through December, so our job is to help them develop a dry-season irrigation system.”

When the team arrived in Panama, they had a few surprises. They thought they would be working with relatively flat ground fields but instead found very hilly land with poor soil quality. The village population of 100 residences was also spread out over 8 kilometers. “Getting water to each of the farm plots was going to be more challenging than we thought,” Dammel says.

Another challenge was designing an irrigation system that could be built with resources from the area and maintained by the villagers themselves, since the team could not provide assistance once they left. “The students really need to think the design through and anticipate any problems that could occur,” says Dammel.

The team, which returned from Panama on March 31, is currently evaluating a pump design that utilizes solar power and is attempting another assessment trip in June. Although some of the students will have graduated by then, others will remain on the team and brief students who will be new to the project.

“The idea behind this is to improve lives in the developing world,” says Dammel. “Our students and faculty are making a real difference.”

And engineering majors aren’t the only group of students who can change lives in the Engineers Without Borders projects, says Merayyan. “We’re also looking for the expertise of health science, business administration and communication majors, just to name a few,” he says. “There are still issues with figuring a budget, writing a report, so many things. We can all change lives by sharing our knowledge.”

For more information on Engineers Without Borders, contact Merayyan at merayyan@ecs.csus.edu or chapter president Alexander Daniel at csus.ewb.president@gmail.com. For more information about the Panama project, contact Dammel at dammele@ecs.csus.edu.