Fairfield Students Engineer Clean Water in Bolivia
This past August, Dean Bruce Berdanier, PhD, and assistant dean for the School of Engineering, Marcia Arambulo Rodriguez, traveled to Bolivia with a group of five Fairfield students to build a water filtration system.
Through the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Fairfield chapter, established in 2015, the group planned extensively throughout the year and has had several ventures, this summer and in years past, to complete the mission of clean water for the area.
“Sometimes the students get sick because it’s so high up," said Dr. Berdanier about their home base in Bolivia and partner school, Universidad Academica Campesina, Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP), which is about 90 kilometers northeast of La Paz at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level.
It’s a mountainous, lush and jungle-like region. But, there’s an area where there are about 20 small villages that are served by UAC-CP, which has approximately 700 students. Half the people in town still don’t have indoor plumbing so stomach distress from pathogens in their water plagued the area. They were also starting to experience water pollution from agricultural run-off.
“So it rains a lot and you wake up in the morning sitting in a cloud because of the valley and the mountains. They are fortunate to have a lot of water, but it’s just not clean water,” Dr. Berdanier said.
Through Dr. Berdanier, whose international service work expertise spans more than 25 years, Fairfield University’s ventures to Bolivia with EWB have covered a few years and took the project from “assessment trips” to determine the needs and complexities of the area and water system, to the hands-on building of a filtration system that’s fed by one of the area’s two waterfalls. The filtration system that was erected during the August trip channels the water through layers of sand, which eliminates the dirt and parasites and then transfers it to a chlorinator to kill actively growing pathogens.
“I have never seen a team comprised of people, who came from different worlds and spoke different languages, accomplish so much while working together,” said Kacper Laska, a junior in the School of Engineering who was part of both the planning process and the work trip.
The Fairfield group stayed in dormitories at UAC-CP and worked with local students, South Dakota State University students and other volunteers to bring the project to life.
Hugh Smeltekop, executive director of the Carmen Pampa Fund and project collaborator, said, “The students from Fairfield University were excellent critical thinkers, flexible, hard-working and creative, all necessary traits for this kind of work. And the team involves the students at the UAC-CP and the community to ensure that everyone is informed of the need for clean water, and how we can work together to make that happen.”
Dr. Berdanier explained that the project, which has received funding from several local partners including Aquarion Water Company and the Fairfield Rotary Club, is a globalized experience for the students that helps them see engineering as “the service profession that it is.”
“What we do here – that’s our mission – you’re going into engineering to solve the big problems in the world,” Berdanier said. “We build our curriculum around society's biggest challenges. Everything that we build or design – it’s about fulfilling a need or challenge.”