Engineers working to aid tribe in remote Amazonian village

February 21, 2008

Forty Shuar tribe families at the border of an Amazon rainforest in Ecuador could soon experience a dramatic improvement in their living conditions through the work of students in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

Three members of the ASU chapter of Engineers Without Borders will spend more than a week during March in the remote Amazonian village of Tsurakú, bringing tribal leaders design concepts for solutions to their water quality, water supply and sanitation problems.
About 300 people live in the village, more than half of them children. Download Full Image

The journey follows up on a two-week trip that five ASU engineering students and a mentor made to Tsurakú in August to evaluate conditions in the village and begin work on solutions that will be economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable.

Other groups from ASU – including as many as 25 engineering students, along with mentors and possibly some ASU faculty members – are to make trips to Tsurakú beginning in June to complete the first phase of implementation and testing of new systems. Various ASU groups will take turns working in the village for up to two months during the summer.

“Tsurakú is in need of water delivery, water purification and sanitation systems to protect its people from sickness,” says Krishna Mukkavilli, a student majoring in chemical engineering and a member of the technical team designing the village’s water system. “While there is plenty of fresh water in the area from rivers and rainfall, there is not enough water reaching the villagers, nor is this water pure enough to drink.”

The students learned of the problems in Tsurakú from Peace Corps volunteer Katie Wallace, who recently lived in the village for more than year. Wallace requested help from Engineers Without Borders in 2006.

The organization is an international nonprofit humanitarian organization that pursues partnerships with developing communities to improve the quality of life by implementing environmentally conscious engineering solutions.

The ASU chapter members learned of the request through the organization’s U.S. headquarters and decided to take on the challenge. Five students – Andy Montes, Mark Rohan, Elsy Escobar, Cori Oversby and Uven Chong – and mentor Erick Bevington, a professional engineer and ASU civil engineering graduate, made the initial visit to Tsurakú last summer.

The Amazonian region receives consistent rainfall year-round, but very little water reaches the people of Tsurakú. A dam built by Ecuador’s government in the 1970s has essentially been abandoned and transfers little of its reserves to the villagers.

The ASU team determined that as much as 95 percent of dam system’s reserves are lost because of two things: large cracks at the base of the structure and faulty distribution systems.

What little water reaches the villagers is highly contaminated. The team found that cases of diarrhea, intestinal worms and skin infections are primarily the result of the village’s contaminated water, unsanitary living conditions and poor diet.

ASU students divided into five teams focusing on sanitation, water distribution, dam restoration, reservoir reconstruction and community education.

The education team is working to ensure the villagers commitment to the project, teaching the Shuar tribe members how a water purification system will work and training them how to prevent contamination – and what to do if contamination does occur.

"We identified what the problems are, but now we have to build community involvement,” says Michal Ziv-El, the Tsurakú project manager, who is working on a doctorate in environmental engineering at ASU.

Ziv-El will join fellow engineering student Bella Delagarza and mentor Bevington in Ecuador in March to present proposed systems solutions to the Tsurakú leaders. They will be joined by engineers from the Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador.

After initial implementation of the systems this summer, there are to be follow-up trips to assess performance and make any necessary alterations.

"Our commitment to this community will reach at least several years down the road,” says Mark Rohan, president of Engineers Without Borders/ASU, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.

The project promises to be a challenging – but professionally and personally rewarding – endeavor for the students, Rohan says.
It is providing the Engineers Without Borders/ASU chapter its biggest opportunity to fulfill the organization’s mission to provide humanitarian aid, and make engineers and students aware of where and how their skills can be applied to improve conditions throughout the world.

"My work with the group is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life,” Rohan says. “It has put a lot of personal responsibility on me outside of my coursework, but I am learning skills that cannot always be taught in the classroom.”

He and other engineering students have learned to arrange for safe international travel, received training for teaching emergency first-aid skills, and engaged in international collaborations between universities, governments and communities, Rohan says.

"Most of all, we are becoming aware of the poor living conditions much of the world faces,” he says. “We’re learning that we can’t just ignore these major sanitation, water and malnutrition problems. We are seeing and experiencing them firsthand.”

The ASU chapter was established in 2002 and has participated in several projects, including development of water system in Mexico. It has grown to more than 25 members, including undergraduates, graduate students and professionals from many countries, including Mexico, El Salvador, China, Iran, the United States, Ecuador, India and several African countries.

The chapter collaborates with the Phoenix professional chapter, which is involved in a water project in Honduras. It also works closely with the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering’s Global Futures Initiative, which provides opportunities for ASU students to participate in international and interdisciplinary engineering team programs.

The students are seeking funding to support the continuation of its work in Ecuador. To learn more about this project and supporting the effort, visit the Engineers">">ngineers Without Borders/ASU Web site.

Engineering student adviser earns university award

February 21, 2008

Lauren Levin, an academic adviser in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, has won one of ASU’s annual Excellence in Advising Awards.

The awards, given by the Council of Academic Advisors, ASU Parents Association and the ASU Provost’s Office and Career Services Office, recognize advisers whose work demonstrates effectiveness in recruiting and retaining students, and guiding them to success in their academic careers. Download Full Image

Advisers are evaluated as well on their efforts to reach out to students, making them aware of scholarships, resources and services that can aid them in their education.

Awards are given in five categories for advisors and adviser-support staff. Levin won in the Experienced Adviser category.

Levin also is being nominated for a similar award to be given by the National Academic Advising Association.

“I feel like this is an award that reflects on all of who do advising at ASU,” Levin says. “It’s good to have the administration’s support in this way through the Parents Association.”

She will receive the award at a Feb. 13 ceremony at the Virginia G. Piper Auditorium on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

The civil and environment engineering department has seen notably higher student recruitment and retention as a result of Levin’s efforts, says Anna Yi, associate director of the engineering school’s office of Academic and Students Affairs.

“She is a mentor and role model to her staff and she has taken the initiative in sharing her advising skills and experience with colleagues,” Yi says. “She never loses sight of the goal of guiding students toward the opportunities that will lead to an effective education and successful careers.”

Levin is serving on the newly created university provost office’s Advisory Council and Student Advising.

“I like getting a chance to represent the engineering school on this university-wide council,” she says. “I think student advising is one of the strengths of the engineering school.”

Levin has been with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for two years and now coordinates its advising center. She previously worked for more than three years in advising for the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

She has a doctorate in family studies and human development from the University of Arizona.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering