Thursday, September 20, 2007

University of Illinois Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

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University of Illinois Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

One of the more active environmental groups on campus at the University of Illinois doesn’t have the word “environmental” in its name. It is a student chapter of the international organization, Engineers Without Borders, which partners with developing communities around the world in order to improve their quality of life.

Begun in 2003 at the initiative of students, the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders currently boasts about 100 active members. They range in expertise from first year students to Ph.D. candidates in disciplines that include civil, electrical, and chemical engineering, as well materials science. The members of Engineers Without Borders work with a faculty adviser on each of the projects they undertake, but the students themselves are ultimately responsible for the design and implementation of these projects. In addition, students maintain the organization through their own efforts, which is no mean feat for a group that sends a good percentage of its members out into the world each year.

Tessa Colbrese, a junior in civil engineering, and publicity officer for the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders, emphasizes that the group doesn’t go around looking for things to do, but undertakes projects in response to requests from communities that will be served by them.

She also explains that the group seeks to develop reciprocal, ongoing relationships where they work. In her words, “It’s not just a drop and go arrangement.” Engineers Without Borders provides design and technical assistance, and they raise funds to cover costs such as their own travel expenses. But the communities where they work contribute labor and materials for projects, as well as other services, such as food, housing, and translation.

To date the greatest success for the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders is the electrification project it assisted with in rural Orissa, in India. [Photo: UI Engineers Without Borders team members work with local residents to lay out foundation for building to house generator in Orissa.] There, in summer of 2005, they installed a generator intended to provide electricity for spice grinders, a source of revenue, and for lighting in one building in the town. The generator was modified to run on vegetable oil, a biofuel derived from local crops, rather than petroleum-based diesel, which would have been difficult and expensive to bring in. A year after the project was completed a group of students returned to Orissa to find power grids connecting more than 50 homes to the generator, mainly providing electricity for compact-fluorescent lighting. In addition, the community had organized a system under which families take turns providing the vegetable oil to run the generator.

The University of Illinois chapter of Engineers Without Borders currently has seven other projects in the works. These include one that will provide clean water to a village in Nigeria, one that will supply a rural area in Haiti with refrigerators that can operate independently of an electrical grid, and another to develop a device for measuring harmful emissions from indoor cook stoves, which are the source of a host of environmental problems worldwide. They’re even sponsoring a project in Champaign-Urbana to create biodiesel from waste vegetable oil generated by campus dining services that can then be used to power campus vehicles.

Beyond the immediate good that it does, perhaps greatest benefit provided by the U of I student chapter of Engineers Without Borders is sending out graduates who understand and value the importance of meeting human needs by environmentally sustainable means.