Missouri-Rolla engineering students work on infrastructure projects abroad

Wednesday, December 26, 2007 | 4:21 p.m. CST; updated 3:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ROLLA — For 15 University of Missouri-Rolla engineering students, a summer trip to the tropics was far from relaxing.

The students were part of Engineers Without Borders, a national group that uses volunteers to help develop public infrastructure in poor and underdeveloped areas of the world.

In the Rolla students’ case, they traveled to the Bolivian villages of Inka Katurapi and Rio Colorado, both outside the capital of La Paz.

In Inka Katurapi, they taught the roughly 80 families living in mud brick homes how to build, operate and maintain composting latrines for each family.

“Ask anyone there what their most pressing need is and they will tell you, ‘Aqua es vida.’ Water is life,” said Allison Poulignot, a 19-year-old civil engineering sophomore. “They really need clean water for drinking, for cooking, for bathing.”

Poulignot can attest to that after becoming ill while building latrines and losing 15 pounds during the 10-day trip.

In Rio Colorado, another group of student mixed mortar and laid bricks to build new showers for a school and installed plumbing to handle the increased water flow. Last year, they replaced the school’s shallow, bacteria-filled wells with deeper ones.

“I know that when I graduate I’m going to use my degree to do this kind of work,” said Tom Scroggin, a 21-year-old Rolla senior from Kansas City, who worked on the Rio Colorado project. “It’s powerful knowing the scope of how much you can affect the world.”

Established in 2002, Engineers Without Borders-USA has about 200 chapters around the country and 8,000 members. Sixty percent of the chapters are made up of college students. Rolla, which is overseeing two projects in Bolivia and plans a third next year in Honduras, is one of the more active chapters, said Tracy Beavers, a spokeswoman for the Longmont, Colo.-based organization.

Chapters must agree to work on a project for five years. Students make several visits to their chosen villages, accompanied by professors and sometimes professional engineering members. The members make sure in preliminary discussions with villagers what are their most pressing needs and whether they’ll be able to keep the improvements running after the students are gone.

“The nice thing about Engineers Without Borders is we make sure our projects can be sustained,” Beavers said.

Travel expenses, equipment and other needs for the students are paid by the members themselves, although the national organization sometimes provides grants. The Rolla students raised more than $100,000 in corporate donations last year and spent more than half on the summer projects.

“The vision we have is to create a completely new species of engineer; the humanitarian engineer,” Beavers said. “Our mission is to make people’s lives better all over the world, one community at a time.”

More than 80 percent of the group’s projects involve filtering and routing water in small villages. But members also build clinics and schools.

The Rolla chapter already plans to return to Bolivia next month to supervise the building of a bridge to connect Inka Katurapi and a neighboring community over a river.

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