Engineers Breaking Down Borders

Facultyand students from the Schoolof Engineering at Universidad de los Andes and the Minuto de Dios University are developing models and applying engineering tools to help vulnerable communities.

The idea was developed by Industrial Engineeringassistant professor Catalina Ramírez, who saw the initiative at work in a number of European universities while preparing for her doctorate in Italy. While not as high profile as Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders has been operating in France for more than 20 years, and more recently in US, Spain, and Italy.

Ramírez began to promote the idea three years ago among chemical, industrial, civil and environmental engineers in the School although she faced a certain amount of skepticism, a number of people were supportive of the idea. "My dream is to show that, as engineers, we can manage to bring about solutions to interdisciplinary problems."

She then assembled an interdisciplinary team of facultyand students and, since she believes it important to transcend the borders of Los Andes, also invited members of the Minuto de Dios University to take part. The team has been working together for the last three years.

One of the first challenges was to select an issue to focus on. "It had to be related to engineering and to the needs of the communities. The most relevant issue turned out to be water. It was the most appropriate since it affects an enormous number of people, and is often in scarce supply, contaminated or mismanaged. Water also falls within the Millennium Objectives," notes the industrial engineer.

As a result, water quality has been improved in one Colombian community and one Chinese community through the design and implementation of simple technologies.

In China, systematic work was carried out with students and facultyfrom the Faculty of Engineering at Nankai University. Miguel Ángel González, an Industrial Engineering student and one of Engineers Without Borders' first members, visited China as part of a student exchange program. He managed to recruit 13 students and a faculty memberfrom the Environmental Science and Engineering College of Nankai University to the project. Every Sunday they come online to discuss technological and laboratory analysis proposals to improve water quality in Wuqing, a district of China's sixth largest city, Tianjin, where these proposals are currently being rolled out.

In Colombia, Engineers Without Borders is active in 12 districts of the Guayabal de Síquima municipality near Bogota. Tangible results have been achieved in the Torres district, with 120 people benefitting from a project on water filters which began two years ago. "We hope to see the communities take ownership of the solution and become self-sufficient," notes Dr. Ramírez. "We can only do something if the community is willing to work with us." The first step of every project is to identify community leaders with an understanding of water mains and water in general, people with direct ties to city hall and local decision makers. This networking is accompanied by a technological impact assessment.

Engineers Without Borders encourages the University's students to adopt an innovative approach through field work, dialog with the community, communication with engineers and team work. "Every semester we have around 50 students from Los Andes and Minuto de Dios. Almost 40% are from Environmental Engineering, 20% from Industrial Engineering, 10% from Civil Engineering and 30% from Chemical Engineering." The group has also counted with the participation of Los Andes professorsincluding Jorge Acevedo from Industrial Engineering; Felipe Muñoz and Sebastián Hernández from Chemical Engineering, and Andrea Maldonado and Jaime Plazas from Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Engineers without Borders was selected by UNESCO from over 900 groups worldwide as winner of the Mondialogo Engineering Award. The jury included Future Mobility vice president and Chief Environment Officer, Daimler AG; Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO; Director of the Technology Consultancy Center, Kwame Nkrumah University Kumasi, Ghana; Director of the Center for Environment Studies and Socioresponsive Engineering (CESSE), Muffakham Jah College of Engineering & Technology, Hyderabad, India; Director of the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technology, and Director of the Education and Human Resources Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

To tackle the challenge of transferring technology know-how to improve living conditions for vulnerable communities, Engineers Without Borders hopes to see more students and become involved. At the same time, the group hopes to strengthen the international network of groups in the same program in other engineering faculties throughout the US and Europe.

Catalina Ramírez, industrial engineer, assistant professor, Department of Industrial Engineering.
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Engineers Without Borders works to bring engineers, students and faculty out of their offices, research centers, and study halls and into vulnerable communities, to offer technological solutions to improve their living conditions.

Engineers Without Borders students transporting materials to build water filters in the district of Torres, Cundinamarca.

Engineers Without Borders representatives Juan Camilo Silva, Los Andes University, and Wang Zhao, Nankai University (right), were awarded gold medal in the Mondialogo competition for the group's work in Colombia and China. The filter, designed by engineering students from both countries, eliminates 90% of microorganisms present in drinking water.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 14:43