A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Class Acts: Student Team Focuses on Real-World Issues in Peru

March 9, 2012

By Catherine Probst Ferraro

Mason engineering students in Peru. Courtesy photo.

Last summer, several Mason students, faculty, and alumni found themselves high in the snow-capped Andes Mountains in the small agricultural community of San Isidro in southern Peru. They were there to implement a water storage system to meet the needs of its 100-person population.

The students are part of a new organization, Engineering Students Without Borders (ESWB), which is housed in Mason’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering. Though not yet an official student chapter of the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), the team’s mission is the same—to address people’s basic needs by providing sustainable solutions for clean water, power, sanitation, and education.

Instead of waiting to become a new EWB-USA chapter, Mason’s team joined the University of Maryland’s student chapter on this project in the Andean village.

In summer 2010, ESWB chapter advisor and Mason faculty member Barry Liner and recent graduate Mariana Cruz, BS Civil and Infrastructure Engineering ’11, traveled to San Isidro to assess the structural damage in the community’s irrigation network and existing water storage tank. These issues have caused severe water shortages for the entire community.

When Liner and Cruz returned to the United States, the Maryland team began work on improving the irrigation system while the Mason team took on the challenge of developing a water storage system. Senior engineering student Sean O’Bannon led the team, which consisted of a handful of engineering students and soon-to-be alumni Jim Milliken, Trevor Hughes, and John Guenther, who all graduated in May 2011 before the trip.

Several local engineering professionals worked with the team as mentors, including civil and infrastructure engineering alumnae Joanna Vivanco from ECS Mid-Atlantic and Katty Overcash of the Prince William County Service Authority.

As part of the planning process, the team developed a variety of alternative solutions based on the needs of the community, cost, availability of materials, impact on the environment, and ease of construction and maintenance. Ultimately, they decided the most viable option was to install two new plastic water tanks. Each tank holds about 10,000 liters of water and is can withstand all types of weather.

“During the planning and design phase of the project, we drew on the problem-solving and analytical skills we have learned in class,” says O’Bannon. “The entire experience was eye opening, and we learned a lot about the cultural implications of working with rural communities.”

Once the design was finalized, the team turned its attention to raising funds to cover its return trip to San Isidro, as well as the cost of building materials. The team hosted a variety of fund-raising activities and received generous support from its department, Mason’s Civil Engineering Institute, the Office of the Provost, and the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. In the end, the students secured more than $15,000 for the project.

For two weeks, the ESWB team worked with the San Isidro community to demolish and dispose of the previously damaged tank, install the new tanks, and connect them to the existing water system. The rest of the trip was spent educating the community about how to maintain and operate the tanks using hardware available to them locally, thus helping ensure a sustainable solution where the community will be self-sufficient in the future.

“The experience one receives from being a part of ESWB can’t be taught in a classroom,” says O’Bannon. “In real life, things go wrong. The plan doesn’t always go the way it was envisioned. Being able to adapt to your surroundings and fix things on the fly is what separates a true engineer from an academic.”

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