By Thomas K. Grose
ENGINEERING STUDENTS ARE TRAVELING
FAR AND WIDE TO IMPROVE THE LOT OF SOME OF THE WORLD'S
LAST JANUARY, Dale Meck, then a senior civil engineering
student at Cornell University, found himself deep in the interior
of Honduras at the end of the rainy season, slogging through
mud that was, at times, up to his knees. Meck, 22, was there
with six other students and two engineering faculty members
to assist a local group working to bring water to remote villages.
The Cornell contingent designed software that can be used
on the fly in hardscrabble areas to estimate the cost and
feasibility of planned water-supply systems: a money-saving
application for communities where money is even scarcer than
That real-world project is one of many ongoing efforts organized
by Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW)—formerly
known as Engineers Without Frontiers—which holds its
national conference this month at Stanford University. The
Honduras project is also one of four that form the nucleus
of a new Cornell engineering course, entitled Engineers for
a Sustainable World, taught by assistant professor Rachel
A. Davidson, who also journeyed to Honduras.
ESW is a three-year-old, fast-growing organization that pools
the resources of student, academic, and professional engineers
to bring first-world technological solutions to third-world
problems. Those problems are in areas such as potable and
wastewater systems, infrastructure, information technology,
housing, energy, and agriculture.
Ours is a world in which 5 billion people survive on less
than $3 a week, and 1.2 billion don't have access to clean
drinking water. But, says Krishna S. Athreya, head of the
ESW's board of directors, "a lot of those conditions
can be alleviated with appropriate access to technology."
Bringing useful technology to the developing world will not
be easy. But, she asks, who's better suited to the task than
engineers. "They're quintessential problem-solvers."
Engineers Without Frontiers originated in Canada in 1999.
The following year a branch opened in the United Kingdom.
Athreya (who until recently was director of Minority and Women's
Programs in Engineering at Cornell) and graduate engineering
student Regina R.L. Clewlow—now executive director—organized
a chapter at the Ithaca campus in 2001 and began cobbling
together the infrastructure for a national group. New chapters
at campuses ranging from Penn State to Stanford emerged soon
after. The group now has more than 1,000 members in chapters
at 19 American schools, including the universities of California-Berkeley,
Michigan, and Iowa. Clewlow estimates that by next spring,
membership will total between 1,500 and 2,000. So far, membership
tilts toward the civil, environmental, and mechanical fields,
Clewlow says. But engineers from all disciplines are welcome
While the U.S. group maintains links to its counterparts
in Canada and the United Kingdom—they often share resources—it's
taken a more independent route. The name change, for instance.
The Americans decided Engineers Without Frontiers invited
comparisons to groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors
Without Borders) and Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief—organizations
that parachute into emergency situations to provide aid. That's
not what this group does. The name Engineers for a Sustainable
World, the membership felt, better described its more "long-term"
focus on seeking "lasting solutions for reducing poverty."
Engineering has always been about making life better, Athreya
explains. "The core value of engineering is using technology
in the service of humanity." But, she adds, "When
we talk about humanity, we mean all humanity, not just the
privileged people who already have access to technology."
She speaks of the pyramid of humanity, where at the base live
the 4 to 5 billion people who have little wealth; at the top
live the relatively few rich. Usually, she says, the business
model has been to develop technology for those at the top
and let it filter down to the masses. ESW proposes developing
technologies specifically designed for the world's poor.
These basic products and services would necessarily be inexpensive,
but the "sheer numbers" of users would ensure
massive markets that could generate profits, "turning
the marketing model on its head."
Narrowing the Gap
The organization is eager to bring sustainable development
issues into the classroom. One of its goals is to "educate
a generation of engineers to have greater understanding of
global issues and the ways technology can be employed for
human progress." Many students are receptive, Athreya
explains. "It's a way to harness the idealism we have
in youth." The numbers bear her out: 84 percent of ESW
members are students and 16 percent are professionals, including
many academics. Moreover, she adds, helping the impoverished
to have a better life can, for students, "be a life-changing
That was certainly the case for Meck. He says the trip to
Honduras was an eye-opener. Even in small villages, he says,
the gulf between the privileged few and the many others with
nothing was huge. The Cornell group worked with a local organization,
Agua Para el Pueblo, that's building the water systems. Says
Meck: "The coolest part is: It's Hondurans helping
Studies show that qualified young women often shun engineering
for other fields, such as medicine, because many of them want
to do something to help others, and they don't see how they
can accomplish that as engineers. That's a misconception
that needs to be overcome, Athreya says. "Engineering
is all about helping people, and the scale can be quite grand."
She thinks efforts to give budding engineers the opportunity
to tackle global poverty issues is one way to get that message
across to not only young women but to minorities, as well.
ESW membership figures indicate it is popular with women and
minorities. Forty-one percent of its student membership is
female and 17 percent underrepresented minorities. Among its
professional members, 31 percent are women and 8 percent minorities.
Ideas for projects come from a variety of sources. Some percolate
up from chapters and individual members, others come from
activist organizations looking for engineering skills. ESW
has a projects team that vets all suggestions. Its ongoing
or completed projects include:
- Training IT trainers in Bosnia-Herzegovina
in the intricacies of introductory Java programming.
- An irrigation cost study for sub-Saharan
- An effort in Nigeria to develop products
and markets for energy converted from biomass waste.
Some new engineering courses, like Davidson's at Cornell,
are specifically designed to take advantage of ESW projects.
In addition to the Honduran rural water project, Davidson's
class is also working on several other ESW projects, including
an initiative to use vegetable oil as an alternative vehicle
fuel, and the designing of a solar-powered oven. "They're
all technologies for the developing world," Davidson
says. The elective class has been popular not only with engineering
students but with students from other departments. Also, women
usually make up half the class roster.
Instead of creating new courses, some schools have incorporated
ESW projects into existing courses. One civil and environmental
course at Stanford is working on a "green" building
design project. Other schools have developed seminars connected
Not all projects require travel to far-flung regions, and
when travel is involved, not all participants need go. When
a project is part of a class, however, students earn credits.
For students and professionals alike, the project experiences
can enhance one's professional experience. They also
look great on a résumé. One undergraduate student
wrote a paper based on her experience working on a water project
in India that was ultimately published.
In building the initial infrastructure of Engineers for a
Sustainable World, Athreya and Clewlow focused on linking
universities; an academic network seemed a logical way to
proceed. The group is conducting a survey of professional
engineers, members and nonmembers, as a first step toward
bringing more professionals into the fold. Most current professional
members are young. Many are former student members. Clewlow
says EWS also plans to seek more corporate financial help.
Funds come from many sources, such as individuals, funding
agencies, activist groups (like the International Water Management
Institute), student fundraising, and universities.
Meck, meanwhile, made one more project-related trip to Honduras
this past summer. Of the experience, he says, "The main
thing was [that] I felt like I was doing something special."
He begins work toward his master's degree in hydraulic
fluid mechanics at Stanford this month. He loves research
and might remain in academia, but now he's keen to combine
his lab work with his new interest in sustainable development.
"I'd like to target research that's beneficial
to more areas than the United States," he says.
And it seems likely that the fruits of his laboratory labor
will be in great demand.
The Web site for Engineers for a Sustainable World is www.esustainableworld.org.
Thomas Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.