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UK Students Head to Honduras on Humanitarian Mission

Monday, August 5, 2013

A group of University of Kentucky engineering students left Lexington on Sunday for Honduras, where they will put their skills to use to provide clean drinking water for a small village.

The five students, members of the UK student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UK), are traveling to the Central American nation along with faculty mentor Professor Nick Stamatiadis to visit the rural, geographically isolated village of El Carrizo. 

Although situated only about 15 kilometers from the nearest city, El Carrizo lacks many modern amenities such as running water and sanitation. Its 800 or so residents use buckets to draw their water from open wells. Out of 20 wells tested by UK student volunteers on a preliminary assessment visit last summer, only one was free of biological contamination.

The UK student group drew up a plan in 2011 to build a gravity-fed clean-water distribution system, employing a central water tower and a network of tap stands throughout the village. The design phase of the project has taken the better part of a year, and now the team is ready to begin preliminary work.

The geography of El Carrizo presented some challenges in designing the system, explained Austin Dahlem, a UK engineering graduate student who is a mentor and former director of operations for the group.

"El Carrizo is pretty flat," Dahlem said. "That's actually a bit of a problem from a planning and design perspective. If there was more natural elevation, we could just put a big tank on top of a hill and run a pipeline straight down. We don't have that, so we have to build a tower that can support our water tank."

The water tank itself will be fairly lightweight, as it will be made of plastic. However, when filled with 5,000 liters of water it will weigh more than 11,000 pounds. Not only must the team construct a tower that can safely support the tank, but they will need to survey the site and pour a concrete slab that can in turn support the tower.

Then there are trenches to dig for the piplelines that will supply the tap stands. The team's design calls for at least one tap to be located within 300 meters (less than one-fifth of a mile) of every home, in accordance with established accessibility standards.

The current visit will involve a lot of planning, taking measurements, and coordinating efforts with the local residents. The plan calls for the entire project to be completed in stages, over the course of four years.

Meanwhile, the team will construct and deploy pot chlorinators, an effective, low-tech method of disinfection, to purify the water in the existing wells. The students will instruct local residents in their proper use and maintenance.

This is the second international humanitarian project the group has been involved with. In 2010, members of EWB-UK joined colleagues from Hope College and Yale University in the west Central African nation of Cameroon. There they drew up designs to repair a critical 3 km section of road that connects the city of Kumbo with the agricultural center of Nkuv, some 25 km (about 15 miles) away.

Dahlem helped to found EWB-UK in 2009, when he was still an undergraduate, along with fellow UK graduate Meredith Dahl. The group is open to all majors, although participation is strongest from engineering and business management students. The group is supported through fundraising efforts and by contributions from its members. 

When it comes time for the group's members to look for jobs after graduation, having an international civil engineering project or two on their resumes certainly won't hurt. But Dahlem says the members' primary motivations are less about engineering and more about a desire to do some good in the world. 

"It's what you could call humanitarian engineering," Dahlem said. "Using engineering skills to solve basic human problems and make a difference in people's lives."

The student team traveling to Honduras includes: 

  • Austin Dahlem, a civil engineering graduate student, EWB-UK founder and its former director of operations.
  • Andrew Davis, a third-year mechanical engineering student and EWB-UK president.
  • Alexa Deep, a fourth-year civil engineering student, former EWB-UK fundraising and membership director. Deep is president of service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega-Alpha Zeta. 
  • Faina Matveeva, a third-year mechanical engineering student and a Singletary Scholar. Matveeva is EWB-UK's fundraising director and an SGA senator.
  • Stephen Parsons, a second-year computer science and international studies student and a Singletary Scholar. Parsons is EWB-UK's project manager and also works for Tetra Tech. 

Accompanying them are: 

  • Nick Stamatiadis, professor of civil engineering and EWB-UK's faculty advisor. 
  • Patrick Bischoff, professional project engineer at Tetra Tech, and EWB-UK's professional mentor.

Those who wish to follow the group's progress can visit the EWB-UK Facebook page at