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Stepping out: SU’s Engineers Without Borders goes beyond classroom to improve underprivileged communities

Courtesy of Engineers Without Borders

SU’s Engineers Without Borders works on a construction project in Kenya. Shortly after the SU chapter was started in 2007, the organization adopted the Kenya Project and made plans to renovate an orphanage in Kinangop.

Inside the classroom, Syracuse University engineering students learn to improve infrastructures. Outside the classroom, they learn to improve lives.

“I am on a personal mission to convince all engineers that all engineering projects in some way are public health projects because engineers are meant to serve people,” said Shannon Magari, who helped start the Engineers Without Borders chapter at SU and is an adjunct professor in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Since the group was founded in fall of 2006, EWB has spent thousands of dollars and grueling hours on engineering projects that better underprivileged communities in places such as Kenya and Guatemala. The SU chapter of EWB was presented with an Unsung Hero Award at the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Monday for its charitable engineering work.

“EWB is an international organization comprised of people who aren’t just engineers, but want to use engineering as a means to help other people,” said Scott Anthes, a senior in L.C. Smith and EWB president.

The group first locates a community, either in the United States or an international site, that shows some engineering need and then raises money to fund the project. Some of the money is donated to the community and the rest is used to design the building plans and fund the group’s participation in the final construction, Anthes said.

Almost immediately after the SU chapter was started in 2006, he said, it adopted the Kenya Project, a plan to renovate an orphanage in South Kinangop, Kenya.

Students traveled to the rural mountain village to survey and map out the design plans, which involved a kitchen renovation and expansion of housing to allow the orphanage to double its capacity, Anthes said.

Anthes and his fellow officers were elected as sophomores and jumped feet first into the project.

“Right off the bat we were probably doing 20 hours a week on top of all of our classes — doing meetings, calling people, trying to get the design finished up,” Anthes said.

The group eventually raised more than $20,000, $10,000 of which was donated to the orphanage. Construction began in the summer of 2011 and was completed in April 2012, he said.

The group, Anthes said, is excited to hear the orphanage has already accepted 10 more children in to the refurbished building, fulfilling its goal to increase capacity.

Further adding to the excitement was the announcement of EWB’s Unsung Hero Award, which Anthes said is going to collectively award the efforts of many different people.

“There were probably 10 or 20 engineers in the area who all donated their time, and none of them really got any recognition for their tremendous generosity,” Anthes said.

But the biggest reward for him, he said, was the eye-opening experience of traveling to rural Africa and being greeted by the grateful, smiling children.

“It’s been one of the most worthwhile things I think I’ll ever do, being a part of EWB,” Anthes said.

Steps toward the organization’s future are closer to home than ever before as the group pushes for more local involvement.

Each year EWB partakes in Adopt-A-Highway with a section of Interstate 81. However, the group’s local contribution has not extended much further than a few projects. This semester specifically, local involvement is a prominent goal for the student chapter, said Isaac Allen, a seniorin L.C.Smith and EWB treasurer.

“We’re looking to get involved with as many things as possible because now we’re in that phase between projects where we don’t really have a set thing to do,” he said.

Among other things, EWB has been looking to team up with Habitat for Humanity to potentially build access ramps to make local homes handicap-accessible, Allen said.

There is also a professional chapter of EWB in Syracuse, which the SU chapter has begun to work with on a project to promote public health in Guatemalan schools. The buildings there currently operate without a means for students to wash their hands, so children are unaware of the importance of personal hygiene, he said.

This project would involve traveling to those schools and building hand-washing stations for the children, Anthes said.

EWB is also working with From Houses to Homes, an organization based in New Jerseythat constructs houses out of cinderblock in Guatemala. EWB has been asked to design small-scale water systems to be fit into the already-constructed cinderblock houses, Anthes said.

The group is still figuring out when it will travel for both projects, though a preliminary trip with the professional chapter is projected for summer 2013 to evaluate the situation, he said.

“Kenya kind of consumed the first five years of the chapter, so now we’re trying to pave a new cycle,” Anthes said, “which has been a fun challenge, because (Kenya)’s all I’d ever known.”

A major goal is to kick-start the international projects before the officers involved in the Kenya project graduate, to help ease the transition, he said.

EWB projects have extensive health and safety plans and implementation reports, Allen said. But now that the former officers have the knowledge base to pass on, he said he hopes the paperwork processes will go more smoothly.

Allen said the year or two before traveling to Kenya felt like continuous paperwork, but in the end, the experience was the greatest reward.

The experience, and the EWB project in general, is an example of a great marriage between traditional engineering and public health as community outreach, said Magari, the adjunct engineering professor.

Said Magari: “I want to help students put a little bit of a human face on their engineering education.”

  • Bostonway

    Looks like a total PC project to me! 1) How about focusing on OUR country? 2) What does this help and aid really result in? Often times increasing the well-being of people just enough to have more kids (i.e., more mouths to feed, more scarce resources used, etc). Until a population can be self-sustaining AND its population numbers can be controled, this type of ‘help’ simply backfires and can make things worse!

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