MU public health students partner with Engineers Without Borders

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 | 6:44 p.m. CST; updated 7:40 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 8, 2011

COLUMBIA — Students in the MU public health master’s program have partnered with Missouri University of Science and Technology’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders to work on public health issues in Central America.

Engineers Without Borders is a group that works to improve the quality of life in developing communities through sustainable engineering projects. The Missouri S&T chapter is focused on improving sanitation and water quality. 

Lynelle Phillips, field placement coordinator for the public health master’s program, said that the partnership began after Richard Stevenson, faculty advisor for the Missouri S&T chapter of Engineers Without Borders, contacted her.

“Dr. Stevenson wanted to forge a partnership where we could tackle community problems from a dual approach of public health and engineering,” Phillips said.

Phillips said that the idea came about after Stevenson found that many of the community problems the engineers were working to fix had turned into public health issues.

“Environment is so closely related to health,” Phillips said. “It was just a natural partnership.”

The group recently built infrastructure to bring clean water to villages in Central America.

Erik DeLaney, an MU public health graduate student, was one of the first students to participate in the program.

"I first went to Guatemala in January for five days just to get a feel for the situation," he said. "We wanted to check it out and understand the public health issues we would be working with."

DeLaney went back to Guatemala for two weeks in August and used Photovoice, a research method that involved giving digital cameras to villagers and asking them to take photographs of their health concerns.

"We also held focus groups to talk about the issues," he said. "We used both the pictures and transcripts of the focus groups to analyze the data and bring out the bigger health issues."

He and a fellow student, Andrea Winberg, used the photos to create a poster to showcase their research.

DeLaney said they used both forms of research to create the poster and to present their findings to the engineers to help with current projects and to identify new projects for the community.

DeLaney and Winberg presented their findings at the Missouri Public Health Association's annual conference in September.

They won first place in the student poster competition.  

Abigail Rolbiecki, an MU public health graduate student, went to Honduras to work with Engineers Without Borders after Phillips suggested it as part of an internship program all public health graduate students must complete.

Rolbiecki used Photovoice in her research as well. She said photography has always been a passion of hers, so she jumped at the chance to use it.

“The community buy-in we had was incredible,” she said. “It gave me the energy to continue with this project.”

She will be going back to Honduras for ten days in January 2012. While there, she plans to implement a health education curriculum based on recurring themes she found through her research.

Phillips said that one community participating in the program took pictures of its cookware that was caked in calcium deposits. She said many of the villagers were getting kidney stones as a result of the calcium in the water.

“Engineers who had helped tap a well in that community didn’t realize it had a really high calcium content,” she said. “Having communication like this helped facilitate the conversation and make plans for the future.”

She said that she is not aware of other chapters of Engineers Without Borders creating a partnership with a public health graduate program.

"Maybe we can be a flagship program for others," Phillips said. "It's certainly worked well for us."

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