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Humanitarian Engineering: Not Just Another Charity Case

Engineers in construction already know they can leave a mark on the world through their work, but what about making it a better place at the same time? This is the question that the Humanitarian Engineering Program at the Colorado School of Mines asks of its students, and already they have begun helping those in need through engineering.

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Colorado School of Mines
Colorado School of Mines engineering students are designing and building a water system for Colinas de Suiza, a remote Honduran village.

Established in 2003, the program is intended to teach future engineers both the techniques and the merits of using engineering to help communities around the world. As of now students can receive only a minor in Humanitarian Engineering, but a graduate program is in development and the department is drawing enrollment from a wide cross section of the student body. The most popular course so far has been the senior design class, where undergraduates tackle actual humanitarian engineering challenges facing communities both within and outside the United States. Students choose from more than 40 concurrent projects, where they then participate in both the design and organization of the engineering effort.

"We're trying to enhance the socio-cultural awareness of students, which is something they will need no matter what field they eventually go into," said Dr. David Munoz, Interim Director of the Humanitarian Engineering Program. "There is definitely an element of service, of feeling that humanitarian motivations are piqued when working on projects that are altruistic or about satisfying basic needs." The projects can range from building easy-to-use water systems for a rural Honduran village, to designing a durable and affordable wheelchair for use in the developing world.

The varied curriculum of the department reflects its complex goals. While there are practical engineering courses in topics such as Groundwater Mapping and Design of Small Renewable Energy Sources, students are encouraged to also take relevant courses in the humanities. Developing a global awareness and understanding the roots of humanitarianism are just as important, and students can take classes like Ethics in Engineering or Proposal Writing for a Better World.

While it is not unusual for senior engineering undergraduates to participate in some form of real-world design work, the Humanitarian Engineering Program takes it a step further. In their longest running and most ambitious project so far, the faculty and students chose to build a complete water purification and sanitation system for the remote Honduran village of Colinas de Suiza. ”At first, we had heard they just needed a better sanitation system” Munoz remembers, “but once we got down there, we discovered what they really needed was clean water.”

Colorado School of Mines
Dr. David Munoz, (left) faculty lead on the Honduran water project, and former student Emily Allen were UNESCO 2004-05 Mondailago prize winners.

Dr. Munoz lead a small team of students down to Colinas de Suiza in the fall of 2004 on a surveying expedition. After observing the inaccessibility and levels of contamination in local water sources, they decided on building a water tank with purification and distribution systems to provide clean running water to all the residents. The team worked alongside a group of students from UNITEC, the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This collaboration and the design work it produced netted them the 2004-2005 Mondialago prize, given out by UNESCO and Chrysler to twenty-one engineering student groups working between countries to improve the quality of life in the developing world.

The local populace had extensive influence on the project and its design. “We did a water-use survey of the local villagers, talked to them about their what they considered their biggest problems, what their water needs were, how common waterborne diseases were in their families and so on,” said Emily Allen, a student on the 2004 trip. She is now a water resources engineer with engineering consultant Carter and Burgess in Denver. “I was more of a civil/environmental engineer, so I spent much of my time doing topography surveys. Still, I spent a lot of time talking to the villagers, because we felt it was important to involve the people in the decisions.” In humanitarian engineering efforts, the engineer often has to play anthropologist to get to the heart of the problems facing communities.

Village elders and residents were eager to participate in the project. The consulted on all major projects. “You need to involve people in the discussion” Allen notes. “If you don’t get their approval every step of the way, whatever we build might not work out for them.” The importance of community involvement is a recurring theme of the Humanitarian Engineering Program, and Dr. Munoz hopes the students will take that attitude with them wherever they end up working. “Even if they don’t end up in humanitarian-related areas, I think being able to relate to local cultures and the needs of a community will help them wherever they go.”

Today, after several semesters of student work and a few more trips down to Colinas de Suiza, the Honduran water project is nearing completion. The final design is almost set, and construction of the water tank and the fifteen miles of pipe required is estimated to cost just under a million dollars. Charitable donations are expected to cover much of that figure, and Dr. Munoz hopes to begin construction as early as June this year. “We’ve been in contact with the local mayor as well as the elected elders of the village, and through them we have been continually explaining the entire project to the villagers. There has been a lot of feedback. We’re going to be building the water tank out of concrete, because that’s what the villagers wanted. They already have experience working with that material, and they want to play a big part in the construction. We hope to have construction finished by mid-July.”

Students in the Humanitarian Engineering Program have finished more than 20 projects since the program's inception, but most of those were design only, and completing the Honduran water system will mark a major milestone. “This was a good project to cut our teeth on,” says Dr. Munoz. “I’m not sure what or where our next big project will be, but I think it helps if we can keep it in this hemisphere."



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