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University engineering students are helping to build a student dormitory for Doi Santi, a village in Thailand's Chiang Mai province. The project is a major step in creating a regional school for 10 remote hill tribe communities.

Engineering a better world

Students form state's first chapter of Engineers Without Borders

By Steve Linders

February 21, 2006

On a cold, damp Minnesota morning, David Gasperino sat in the corner of a Stadium Village coffee shop, his expression a model of intense concentration. Anyone who didn't know the chemical engineering graduate student might have assumed he was preoccupied with an upcoming test, paper, or presentation.

But education wasn't on Gasperino's mind--not the kind of education one gets in a classroom, anyway. He believes that engineering students can make a positive difference in the world--right now--and he's on a personal quest to transform their ideals into action and education. More than 30 Institute of Technology engineering students who share his convictions came together to form Engineers Without Borders-University of Minnesota, of which Gasperino is president.

The group is the first Minnesota chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA, which links engineering students and professionals nationwide with developing communities around the world. Students work on small-scale engineering projects developed in partnership with community residents.

"If we can help provide an education for the people living in those villages, we can change their circumstances for the better," said Makarov.

"I think in every engineering class there are people who have a deep interest in social issues," said Gasperino. "I want to make sure there are ways for those people to make a difference through their disciplines and perhaps shape their careers in a positive way."

Most Engineers Without Borders projects focus on improving energy sources or creating clean water supplies, but others address such issues as the digital divide and enterprise development. All projects are designed to be environmentally and economically sustainable while giving students the chance to broaden their education.

Engineers Without Borders-USA was founded in 2000 by an engineering professor at the University of Colorado. The nonprofit humanitarian organization currently has more than 100 active projects in 30 countries, including the United States, Guatemala, Peru, Ghana, China, India, Niger, and the Dominican Republic. The group has 87 university and 32 professional chapters nationwide.

Caring for others near and far

Not that long ago, Gasperino was working toward a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Washington. He noticed that many Sudanese refugees living in the area lacked warm clothes for winter. He and his friends began visiting fraternities, sororities, and student-housing laundry rooms to collect unused or discarded winter clothing to give to the refugees.

"You'd hand them a coat, they'd take it from your hands and put it on right away. It felt good to know we were helping people," he said.

Those acts of kindness provided immediate relief to people in need, but Gasperino and the Minnesota students are discovering that making a difference through Engineers Without Borders will require more patience.

During its first year the University chapter elected officers, shared ideas, and began searching for a project, a process that entails significant hurdles.

David Gasperino sits at the edge of the Mississippi River
David Gasperino

All projects must satisfy selective criteria established by the national organization. The rigorous application process takes time, and chapters must fund their own projects. And then there's the issue of finding a project with enough opportunities for hands-on work.

"It's been difficult to find a project where everyone who wants to be involved can be involved," admits Gasperino. "But we've got two good ones now that we're trying to get off the ground."

Building strong communitites

In February 2005 the group partnered with the Engineers Without Borders chapters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Seattle University to work on a project in Doi Santi, Thailand. A small village comprised of 38 huts, Doi Santi is vital to the future of children in the region.

Most of Thailand's schools are located in large urban areas. Traditionally, the hill tribes of northern Thailand have regarded formal education as a threat because elders fear their children will not return home after experiencing city life.

With the aid of Engineers Without Borders-USA, Thai officials plan to transform Doi Santi, the only area village with an elementary school, into an educational hub serving families from 10 rural communities. The goal is to develop a community-based boarding school that educates the children within their cultural environment. Doi Santi's proximity to the other villages will allow students to visit on weekends and maintain close ties to their families.

The project will convert the school from one small building into a larger complex with student dormitories and a water sanitation system.

After joining the project, the Minnesota students began planning drainage and erosion-control measures, as requested. But progress has slowed because they have had to spend most of their time building bridges to potential donors.

"We are working on creating a water sanitation system for the village and the school," said Vladimir Makarov, an electrical engineering student and the chapter's treasurer. "Unfortunately, it will take us a little longer than we originally anticipated."

The project's scope--planning, designing, and labor--means that several University students will have to spend up to two weeks in Doi Santi completing the project. The chapter must raise about $20,000 to support its participation.

"We're going to raise the money," Makarov said. "We're going to do it because we believe that people are equal--they just live in different circumstances. If we can help provide an education for the people living in those villages, we can change their circumstances for the better."

More info

To learn more about the University of Minnesota's Engineers Without Borders chapter, see new student chapter.

Although the Doi Santi project seems to have hit a financial roadblock, Gasperino and Makarov are confident the group will find a way around it. They are, after all, engineers.

Over the last several months, members of the University chapter have been working the phones, soliciting donations from area businesses and professional engineers. Callers also inform potential donors that Engineers Without Borders is working to help communities right here at home, too.

"We've got this great project started with the Indian Health Service (IHS) in Bemidji, [Minnesota] It's an important project that a lot of people can get involved with," Gasperino said.

Residents of the Grand Portage Reservation, located at the northeastern tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead Region, get their drinking water from Lake Superior. Because the reservation is located near several major point sources of pollution along the lake, individual homes are equipped with UV filtration units to ensure that people have potable water. Unfortunately, something is causing the units to malfunction, and the IHS has asked the student engineers to research the problem and come up with a diagnostics protocol. In addition, they will investigate the possibility of using an alternative filtration system.

"This is an important project for Engineers Without Borders because water quality is something that no engineer [will question]," Gasperino said. "Water quality is the basis of a stable civilization. And the project's local, so a lot of people can be working on the ground, really making a difference."

To Gasperino, making a living and making a difference are one and the same--and engineering a better world begins right here, right now.

Story reprinted from Inventing Tomorrow, winter 2006, the Institute of Technology magazine.