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Engineering Students Expand Horizons Through Good Works
Everyday local villagers helped the students with the construction of the health clinic, which will serve up to 14 surrounding villages in the Samil area.

When it comes to engineering, volunteerism has no borders. Sixteen engineering students from university chapters of Engineers Without Borders-USA demonstrated this when they dedicated their time and effort to design and build a health care facility to serve hill tribes in Samli, Thailand.

Members of Columbia University EWB chapter traveled to mountainous northern Thailand in May to begin construction of the medical facility. The work was finished in July by the University of California-Los Angeles and University of Maryland-College Park EWB chapters.

EWB, a humanitarian nongovernmental organization, gives students the opportunity to apply engineering skills through hands-on projects that benefit people in developing areas. "One of the most important purposes is working in conjunction with developing countries and training a new generation of globally-aware engineers," says Andrea Stancliff, vice president of EWB-USA's West Coast Professional Partners.

The Columbia University Engineers Without Borders chapter finished the framing, roofing and siding of the health clinic in Samli, Thailand.

Students from Columbia University and UCLA began tackling the Samli project in January 2004 by designing with the use of AutoCAD software the basic structure and floor plan of the 1,800-sq-ft clinic. The University of Maryland students joined the Samli project in April, hoping to gain experience for future chapter projects and to provide an extra manual labor force during construction, says Michelle Neukirchen, a civil engineering major.

Prior to the construction of the clinic, travel time for a medical visit into town could take a week. Centrally located to serve 14 villages, the clinic has a waiting area, an exam room for regular visits and an emergency room. There are also living quarters for doctors, which will be provided by the Thailand government. Available services at the clinic include immunizations, pre- and post-natal care and blood tests.

Richard Herring, a Samli project mentor and member of the EWB-USA board, helped raise $21,500 for all of the project materials. Students paid for their own travel through fundraisers including raffles and cookie sales.

A complete hands-on project, the health clinic was designed and built by student and professional engineers and local volunteers.

When summer rolled around and the design phase was completed, the students rolled up their sleeves and began the hammering and sawing. The students worked with every aspect of construction, including framing, roofing, electrical wiring and installing a wastewater treatment system, which the University of Maryland designed. "We were the brains behind the project as well as the brawn behind it," says Columbia University's Zafeer Baber, a senior biomedical engineering major.

Work days began for the students as soon as the sun rose above the horizon. Local villagers helped with construction throughout the day. "You learn to speak in what I call international sign language," says Baber. "Even though we couldn't joke around with each other because of the language barrier, there are ways to show that you appreciate the experience they are giving us."

The experience enabled the students to see their design come to life. "A lot of time engineers see in two-dimension," says Columbia University's Ambika Rose, project manager. "When you personally put it on paper, revise it and go onto the field, you see all of the details. Being able to do the whole process, it improved my ability to visualize in three-dimension."

Students also dealt with unexpected frustrations, such as specifications changing and torrential of monsoon season rains. "There were a lot of changes that kept happening," says Stancliff, a professional engineer who served as a mentor to the Columbia University students in Thailand. "Being a professional in this field, that is status quo. They had to learn to be flexible."

(Photos courtesy of Joni Morse)

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