Engineers Without Borders

Special from The Record

Sept. 3, 2009Bookmark and Share
Standing in the civil engineering lab last May, Peter Traverso (SEAS’10) held up two aluminum pots. Turning one upside down, he pointed to an electrical heating element at the bottom—one of the only features that distinguishes it from pots used in the Indian village of Purnaguma. There, women cook rice and curry indoors over an open fire that fills their homes with carbon monoxide and soot, a leading cause of global warming. Traverso hopes that using electricity instead of fire will help villagers improve their health and the environment.
Ph.D. student Matt Basinger (center) working in Uganda [Image credit: Jacinda Basinger]
Ph.D. student Matt Basinger (center) working in Uganda
Image credit: Jacinda Basinger
In June, Traverso, a member of the Columbia chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), traveled to Purnaguma to put his pots to use. He is one of 85 Columbia students, mostly undergraduates, actively involved in EWB, an international nonprofit that partners student and professional engineers with nongovernmental organizations in developing countries.
“As undergraduates, there’s not much opportunity to do actual engineering work but this is one of them,” says Allison Schoeneck (SEAS’10), the campus group’s president. Columbia’s EWB chapter has projects in India, Uganda and Ghana—funded by groups such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clinton Global Initiative. It sent students to all three countries over the summer.
Speaking a mix of English and Oriya, the local language, Traverso and Matt Capetola (CC’12) introduced the low-watt cookers, along with a biomass stove given to them by a nongovernmental organization, to villagers. They used an indoor air-pollution monitor to test the efficacy of the cooking equipment and collected feedback from women, who prepare all of the meals. The results were mixed; the pots and the stove worked well to reduce smoke, but it was unclear whether they would catch on. (Readers can follow the group’s progress on their blog, at
The group’s Uganda team traveled to the northeastern district of Soroti to install two engines that were modified to run on the seeds of locally harvested jatropha plants. The engines would help subsistence farmers process their crops and boost their income. Started by earth and environmental engineering Ph.D. student Matt Basinger and now led by Janelle Heslop (SEAS’10), that EWB group won a $75,000 grant from the EPA last spring for their project. The engines, called multifunction energy platforms (MFPs), will allow farmers to perform functions such as shelling and pressing ground nuts into oil and grinding cassava into flour. The villagers can sell processed crops at their local market to generate revenue for their farming co-op.
Shilpa Vadodaria (SEAS’10), program manager for Ghana, and other students spent the summer figuring out how to build on past successes. Two years ago, a Columbia team helped the village of Obodan construct its first community latrine; this summer, students conducted an engineering assessment there on its water and sanitation needs. As part of their survey, Claire Wang (SEAS’11) and Suraj Cheema (SEAS’12) sat all day by a borehole, an open trench where villagers get their drinking water, observing children coming and going with buckets on their heads and measuring how much water households consume. The team identified several future projects, including a system that would pipe water to several village locations (cutting down on kids’ borehole trips) and building a second community latrine. “Ah, Obodan. I already can’t wait to go back,” wrote Wang in her final blog post from the region.
—by Anna Kuchment