Engineers Without Borders Provides Students with Hands-On Experience

July 18, 2011

The UNM student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has some major accomplishments to tout. Over the past two years, the group has made significant strides in their two primary projects.

EWB-UNM is comprised of about 30 students who volunteer their time and skills to efforts aimed at improving the living conditions of underprivileged communities. Although engineering truly serves as the core of EWB, the scope of most projects is such that students from a wide range of disciplines are able to participate.

Students enjoy EWB because they are given the opportunity to contribute to society in a wholly meaningful way, while gaining experience that prepares them well for the professional world. Roughly one third of the work done in EWB is engineering-related; the other two thirds is comprised largely of fundraising, paperwork, marketing, and presentations.

EWB-UNM is currently focused on two projects – the Tsimane Development Project and the Ramah Hogan Heating Project.

The objective of the Tsimane Development Project, also called the Bolivia Project, is improving the availability of clean water in the Tsimane region of Bolivia. The Tsimane people number about 9,000 and reside in roughly 100 villages along rivers and logging roads in the Department of Beni at the foothills of the Andes, in the Bolivian Amazon.

The Ramah Hogan Heating Project is a little closer to home. Students in this group are working to design and install a heating system on a building in Ramah, a town on the Navajo Nation in the western part of New Mexico. The building functions primarily as an educational space for the community, but is unheated and therefore rendered unusable during cold-weather months.

Tsimane Development Project – Bolivia

The Tsimane people are largely secluded from the outside world and have little to no access to civic infrastructure. As such, they rely heavily on local river water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. The river, however, has been severely degraded by logging and upstream cattle grazing. As a result of poor water quality, 60-70% of the Tsimane people suffer from infections and parasitic disease and there is a 10% infant mortality rate.

Last summer, three members of the project team – ME graduate and former EWB-UNM president, Sara Eatman; project leader and former UNM CE student, Kelly Isaacson; and CE assistant professor and EWB faculty advisor, Dr. Mark Stone – traveled to Bolivia to collect water samples and assess the feasibility of improving drinking water for the Tsimane region.

Over the past year, the Bolivia team has raised roughly $14,000, enough to fund a second trip to the Tsimane region. On June 7, Dr. Andrew Schuler, CE assistant professor, will accompany eight or nine EWB members to Bolivia, where the group will remain for roughly ten days.

There are a number of objectives associated with this trip. EWB, for example, will be collecting additional water samples for analysis, further assessing village infrastructure, and rehabilitating some wells in the area. Additionally, the team will meet with Tsimane leadership to outline their proposed solutions and gather input. As part of a trial run, they also plan on implementing one or two of the proposed solutions.

EWB has considered a number of design alternatives to satisfy the clean water needs of the Tsimane people, including rainwater catchments, deep wells with hand pumps, bio-sand filters, slow-sand filters, and silver nitrate pot filters. One of this past semester’s CE 499 class project groups was instrumental in completing a significant portion of the technical work, having conducted detailed cost estimation, analysis, and feasibility of the design alternatives.

Sara Eatman, who will be on the trip, stressed the importance of providing a sustainable solution to the Tsimane people. “It needs to be something they like and that makes sense to them,” she said. Kacey Cubine, CE graduate student and former EWB-UNM treasurer, will also be traveling to Bolivia and added that education will be an important component of the trip. “While in the village,” she said, “we will conduct community workshops on sanitation education and teach locals how to build and maintain the selected solutions themselves.”

One of the biggest challenges faced by the Bolivia group is finding a solution that best satisfies the needs of an entire village. Tsimane locals must not only be willing to assist in the construction of a water system, they must be willing to maintain it on a permanent basis. EWB may ultimately choose to implement multiple solutions conjunctively, and the trip in June will provide the opportunity to assess the feasibility of such an option.



A little closer to home, students involved with the Hogan Heating project have just finalized their design for a series of hot air panels that will be used to heat a hogan in Ramah. This particular hogan is used by the community as an educational space and meeting location for the local weaving co-op.

The hogan is an eight-sided, one room building that is constructed of renewable materials like straw bales and cordwood. The interior of the building is susceptible to low temperatures during cold weather months because the roof is not insulated and there is some separation in the cordwood walls.

EWB considered a number of design alternatives – solar panels and thermal panels, for example – before ultimately choosing efficient and cost-effective hot air panels. “The hot air panels are more simple and elegant,” said project lead and mechanical engineering student, Adam Roukema. They were suggested by a local consultant who plans to track the success of EWB’s Hogan Heating Project.

“The installation of the system will include a large educational component,” said Adam. The Ramah team will work with the local community to put on a ‘solar fair’ to celebrate the installation of the hot air panels. Morris Huang, Ramah Project education coordinator, is in the process of creating an operations manual for the hot air system and compiling educational materials for children in the Ramah community.

Now that the group has completed the design, they will increase focus on fundraising efforts and assessing the structural integrity of the hogan. The Ramah budget of $4,000-$5,000 is significantly less than that of the Bolivia Project and although the primary objective of fundraising is obviously to collect the money needed to fund the group’s efforts, one of Adam’s goals is to host fundraising workshops or events through which EWB can give back in some way to those who support them.


The EWB Experience

Like any student organization, members of EWB come and go. The ones who stick with it, however, are truly passionate about using their skills to help people around the globe. Students in the group are grateful not only for the incredible experience they receive but for the true sense of accomplishment that comes with doing something meaningful and challenging.

Dr. Mark Stone pointed out that, “EWB has had a profound effect on the students involved with both projects. To take on a project that has real and lasting impacts on peoples’ lives is a rare opportunity within a formal education. Both of our projects are making a difference and that has been a real motivating factor in keeping students involved.” Dr. Bruce Thomson, CE Department professor and lead faculty advisor for the Ramah Project, sees a lot of enthusiasm and participation in the organization.

Kent Steinhaus, a recent graduate from the CE Department and newly elected EWB-UNM treasurer, feels that, “EWB is a great way to volunteer your time and connect with others in school.” Kent has been heavily involved in the group’s fundraising efforts and noted that involvement in the organization has given him an opportunity to learn about the growing issues related to clean drinking water, or lack thereof, around the globe.

EWB-UNM is proud of their accomplishments over the past few years and is eager to keep the momentum going. They are always seeking new and interested members from any discipline. To learn more about the organization and find out how you can get involved, visit