Engineering a Better Quality of Life


We’re committed to helping these people

by Bob McCarthy

For the UMass Dartmouth chapter of Engineers Without Borders, returning to Valle Las Perlas, Panama will mark the next step in rehabilitating the village’s water delivery system. It will also be something of a reunion. The August visit will be the third in the five-year project. Working side-by-side with villagers and staying with host families, the students have gotten to know the people they’re helping. Following months of drafting plans from campus, living among the villagers has made the project more personal.

“Getting to finally be in the community made a huge difference,” says Kyle Costa, a senior civil engineering major and President of the UMass Dartmouth Engineers Without Borders chapter. “Being able to connect the work that you are doing to physical places and people, instead of just pictures, makes things a lot more real.”

Though a nearby spring offers Valle Las Perlas a sufficient water source, the current delivery system is unreliable. Residents can sometimes go days without receiving water, causing them to use rivers and streams unfit for drinking. During their previous two trips, the students, under the guidance of their professional mentor Nate Gardner, assessed the outdated aqueduct system and collected topographical data. The biggest issues proved to be damage to the pipeline and a leaking water tank built in a location unsuited for delivering water to the entire village.

Working with College of Engineering faculty Jane Staples and John Finnie, the students have have been drafting designs for a new water system. With the help of community leaders and local labor, during the ten-day August trip they will lead construction on an improved pipeline, install a more efficient pressure break tank, and build a new water tank on higher ground.

Although it requires a significant commitment, Engineers Without Borders represents a rare opportunity. The students have a chance to travel abroad, apply their education to helping others, and gain invaluable experience no classroom can provide. “[It] has definitely given me skills that I would never have developed in school,” says Costa. “Not just technical skills like hydraulic design or surveying, but soft skills like teamwork and leadership.”

After their August trip, the group will return to Panama two more times. Next summer they hope to expand the water system and build taps for the village. The final visit in the summer of 2016 will be dedicated to monitoring the system and performing water tests, as well as training and educating residents on sanitation and conservation.

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