Julie Williams Dixon
Instead of relaxing over the winter holiday with family and friends, five NC State students and two mentors traveled to the west coast of Africa, to a small city in Sierra Leone. They oversaw the drilling of a well that will provide clean water for 700 students and faculty at a school.
The trip was the culmination of many years of planning with much of the project management and logistics handled by CCEE Junior John Merrill. Merrill, like the other four students who went on the trip, is part of the North Carolina State University Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (NCSU EWB.) Merrill has been interested in international development work since he heard about EWB while a sophomore in high school. “I applied to colleges with strong environmental engineering departments so that I would have the opportunity to one day be involved in international development. When I arrived on NC State’s campus as a freshman I attended an organizational meeting for the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders before classes had even started.”
NCSU EWB has two projects underway in Sierra Leone including a clean water team, and a renewable energy team. Both will benefit the Dele Village School, in Lower Allentown, a small city not far from the capital city of Freetown. The school reached out to the national chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB USA) in 2011 requesting assistance with clean water and renewable energy. After the national chapter posted the project need on their website, NCSU EWB applied and was approved to develop the project. In 2011, the chapter sent a small team to make connections with community members and survey the land. The hydro-geological reviews were done in 2013 and 2014. “One of the next steps was a detailed assessment including a hydro-geological review so that we had good knowledge of where the aquifers are in their country,” Merrill said. “Something that might take a few weeks in the U.S. can take months or years in a developing country, because there just isn’t as much pre-existing information, and language and cultural barriers can slow things down.”
The project slowed down considerably when an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone led to travel bans. After a trip planned for 2014 was cancelled, the team used the additional time to develop the well designs further. “We didn’t give up. We kept communicating with the community, and fine-tuning our design specifications for the well,” Merrill said. The team decided just a few months before the trip to change the specifications from a capped well to a hand pump.
“When we changed to a hand pump I had to quickly update our research, to get new specifications and quotes, and then incorporate that into the pre-trip planning document which was over 100 pages,” said Amy Bevilacqua, a Junior studying industrial systems engineering. “Most of my studies to date have focused on operations research, and linear analysis. Participating in the project has been much more hands-on than what my classes have offered. I’ve learned so much working with the engineers from other disciplines.”
The five undergraduates who traveled to Sierra Leone included students from Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE); Industrial and Systems Engineering; Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and Mechanical Engineering. The two mentors who accompanied the group are both alumni of CCEE.
The multi-disciplinary team was not only responsible for the design and specification of the well, but also for raising the funds to pay for it, including costs for labor and materials to drill the well as well build a drainage system and an apron. The local chapter also had to raise the funds to pay for one of their mentors travel expenses. The financing came from a combination of corporate donors, grants, and funds raised from their yearly benefit dinner. “We also launched a crowd sourcing campaign using both our Facebook page, and a platform called ‘Classy’ provided by EWB USA,” Bevilacqua said.
The clean water team plans to return to Sierra Leone again in the winter of 2018 to implement the water distribution system. Meanwhile, another team from NC State’s EWB chapter is heading to the same location over Spring Break to implement a renewable energy system they’ve designed which incorporates solar panels. Part of that energy system will be utilized to power the water distribution system the water team is currently designing.
“While we were there this winter, we spent a lot of time talking with the community to understand how and where they wanted to use the clean water. We needed to understand where the toilets and hand washing stations would be for example,” Merrill said. The team also discovered the school wants to have water accessible on the top floor for a science lab. Merrill and others will now begin specifying storage tank sizes and piping diameters. “We also spent a lot of time teaching the school how to use and maintain the well. About half of the wells in Sub Saharan Africa don’t work, and we don’t want that to happen to this one.” In addition to the 2018 trip, the team is already planning for a monitoring trip in 2019 one year after the project is finalized.
The student chapter of Engineers Without Borders is holding their annual Benefit Dinner on March 25 from 7:00 pm to 9:30 pm in the Duke Energy Hall at James B Hunt Jr. library. For more information visit www.ewbncsu.org/benefitdinner