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Engineers Lend Technical Aid to Developing Countries

December 7, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Spencer Michels reports on how the 8,000 members of the non-profit group Engineers Without Borders are using their technical skills to bring clean water, sanitation and other engineering projects to communities in developing countries.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has a Science Unit report on Engineers Without Borders.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Doctors aren’t the only ones crossing borders to help those in the developing world. In May, a team of American engineers hiked to a remote village in the mountains of Nepal to figure out how to bring clean water and sanitation to the people of Namsaling.

The group from Engineers Without Borders USA was led by its founder, Bernard Amadei, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

BERNARD AMADEI, Founder, Engineers Without Borders USA: How are you guys doing with your projects?

SPENCER MICHELS: The French-born Amadei founded the non-profit Engineers Without Borders in 2000 after some landscapers from Belize working at his home urged him to visit their villages to help ease poverty.

BERNARD AMADEI: One of them really changed my life. The village of San Pablo, where I noticed a lot of little girls, young girls, who were carrying water — that was their job — from the river to the village, back and forth, back and forth. And as a result, they could not go to school. It broke my heart. And I decided that I was going to do something about it.

SPENCER MICHELS: With the help of colleagues and students, Amadei designed a water pump that brought water directly to San Pablo and freed the girls so they could attend school. The experience sparked a change in Amadei.

BERNARD AMADEI: For me, it was an epiphany, a way for me to realize that engineering was not just technical solutions or providing technical solutions; it had very strong social components.

SPENCER MICHELS: What evolved from the project was a new type of engineering.

BERNARD AMADEI: I thought, “Well, that would be pretty neat if I could start a new area of engineering, if you want to call it, small-scale engineering, engineering with a human face, and get students involved.”

Meeting the needs of the community

SPENCER MICHELS: Since its inception, Engineers Without Borders USA has grown to 8,000 volunteer members in more than 200 chapters. Currently, they are working on 250 projects in 43 different nations.

MEG VANSCIVER, Engineers Without Borders USA: We also have a number of assessment trips that are coming through, as well.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meg VanSciver is the senior project manager.

MEG VANSCIVER: The mission is to provide humanitarian engineering projects for communities' self-identified needs. So we want to make sure that they're what the community wants, and what they need, and not what, you know, the NGO going in thinks that they need.

BERNARD AMADEI: That's the most difficult part. How do we make sure that whatever technology we bring over, whatever solution we bring over, is appropriate to the community, that's respectful of the community, respectful of the culture, respectful of the people, does not divide people, creates more unity, more peace in a community? That's one thing.

But, also, how do we make sure that the people understand the technology, can fix it, and how the technology can actually provide opportunities for the community, in terms of creating jobs, creating businesses, so the community itself can get out of poverty itself, not with any outside help.

SPENCER MICHELS: To ensure the projects are designed specifically for the communities, engineers travel abroad, meeting villagers, and seeing their needs firsthand. Then, they design and fundraise for the individual projects. But the major challenge is to change the mindset of the engineers themselves.

MEG VANSCIVER: It's actually a little bit outside sometimes the realm of some engineers' comfort zone. You're used to sitting in front of a computer or something like that and designing something. And now they're going out into communities and actually helping with people and really trying to understand other cultures. And I think that's something that really diversifies the engineering base.

BERNARD AMADEI: Usually, anything that deals with feelings and hope and love, whatever you want, is not something that engineers are known to do. You know, we are hardcore technicians, nerdy at times. It's true for some people.

But all of a sudden, we bring here a different type of engineering. You cannot do Engineers Without Borders' work if you don't bring your heart into it.

Student involvement

SPENCER MICHELS: Carrie McClelland is a third-year graduate student in Colorado's engineering program. She says working on a bridge project in Haiti changed how she approaches problems.

CARRIE MCCLELLAND, Engineering Student: The world is a place now where engineers do need to consider the world, and they need to consider people. You can't just consider your numbers and your designs anymore. I think it's just essential.

So it's been really broadening, a really broadening experience, and helped me open my mind, and consider different ways to do things.

SPENCER MICHELS: Amadei says his work has changed the way he sees the world and himself.

BERNARD AMADEI: I see more smiles in a small village in Africa in one day than I see on the engineering campus in one year. What is it that people have that we don't have?

So it's not me bringing some solutions; it's me working in partnership with people. And those communities that I'm helping with are also offering me so much it's unbelievable. It's making me a better human being, a better dad, a better friend, better husband, better colleague. That's the bottom line.

SPENCER MICHELS: In October, Amadei received a Heinz Award worth $125,000 for individual achievement in the environment. He plans to use his award money to build a network of vocational schools around the globe to develop the next generation of engineers.