Engineers Without Borders Continues their Humanitarian Mission

Founded in 2007, Drexel’s chapter of Engineers without Borders ‘(EWB) mission is to build a better world through engineering. It aims to empower communities to meet basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. The Drexel students are taking on two international water supply projects from the national EWB parent organization – one in Ecuador and another in El Salvador.

Chapter President Jillian Saunders and Vice President Joshua McGuckin took a break in their studies to discuss the student organization and its mission.

What are Engineers without Borders’ primary goals?

EWB provides a space in which students can apply the lessons of the classroom to real-world engineering problems and projects. This is greatly beneficial, as it allows students to understand how their classes, and eventually degrees, directly apply to engineering. At this same time, the projects that Drexel EWB works on allow students to understand the good they can do in a community, no matter how far or close from home.

Additionally, Drexel EWB helps students connect to not only the international communities that we partner with, but many local West Philadelphia communities as well. Through our domestic design team, organization members can create solutions that help fight food insecurity and other faults of gentrification in the community, all while building meaningful relationships between West Philadelphia residents and Drexel students.

How has the organization adjusted to being fully virtual?

The online environment has allowed Drexel EWB to start a monthly speaker series. The idea had bounced around the organization for the past year, but the coordination of speakers and evening meetings has always been slightly difficult. The online environment has allowed us to connect more easily with speakers no matter where they were located. By creating this monthly event with fewer limitations, there have been many exciting speakers sharing their experiences and knowledge with EWB members.

One thing that did pose difficulty in the online environment was the recruitment of new members. Typically, our recruitment is heavily focused on welcome week events and involvement fairs. To overcome this, we worked with the ENGR 111 professors to present about EWB to their students and hosted multiple online recruitment events in the style of trivia nights, open conversations, and problem-solving practice. Though the online transition was not ideal, Drexel EWB has been managing the transition well while looking forward to the day to return in person!

What are the current projects?

Even in quarantine, Drexel EWB has been making progress in our international and domestic design projects. We have started new domestic projects in the Philadelphia area including a partnership with the Philly Rail Park, where we are researching the park’s effect on rainwater mitigation; the FNC urban farm, where we are looking to fix their existing irrigation system; and the Mantua Urban Peace Garden, where we have designed a solar-powered irrigation system help improve their yield.

For our international design project in Ecuador, we have been in frequent communication with our partner community, San Luis de Yacupungo. We have shipped COVID-19 relief supplies and sanitation kits to the community households.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, our parent organization, EWB-USA, has decided to withhold all international travel, so we at Drexel EWB have been looking into hiring in-country contractors to assist with the implementation phase of our international design project. We are set to have this remote implementation in March and have been finalizing reports, budgets and work plans to ensure we are able to meet the implementation goals.

What are some highlights of the fall term?

This term, our virtual speaker series featured EWB-USA professionals, Drexel faculty, and leaders of other professional service organizations presenting their work and previous experiences with humanitarian engineering to our chapter members over Zoom. We aimed to give our members meaningful insight into humanitarian engineering and how it can improve lives even in a remote setting.

One of the speakers was Lynn McConville, the executive director of Power Up Gambia, who discussed her organization’s mission of installing solar power systems in Gambian hospitals. Our members heard how Power Up Gambia grew from humble beginnings with a single hospital partnership to a major humanitarian service organization that has partnered with several large-scale medical centers in the Gambia to meet their energy needs.

We also hosted a virtual coding and software workshop over Zoom to show our members how we can continue to make progress in our domestic and international design projects in this virtual setting. To accommodate our members who were not able to make these presentations we uploaded the recorded Zoom sessions to our chapter’s official YouTube channel for them to view in their free time.

Drexel EWB has offered a vertically integrated programs (VIP) course every term since the fall of 2019, which has allowed our members to work on their EWB projects for college credit. VIP students have the option to pursue research projects related to our international and domestic design projects or to pursue their own research interests that might further the chapter’s mission. These projects are usually individual based with weekly or biweekly check-ins with the course instructor which allowed for an easy transition to our current online setting.

This term, VIP students worked on circuit layouts for solar power systems for our domestic projects and an interactive Prezi presentation to inform new members about our previous international design project in Miramar, El Salvador. Students have found VIP to be a very useful outlet to get their EWB work done while also meeting their requirements for technical electives and lessening the struggle of managing EWB and coursework.

What does EWB have planned for the winter term?

One of the primary plans in place for the winter is the fifth term of our Vertically Integrated Project (VIP). This is an independent research course that EWB members can take for credit while working with our faculty mentors and deep dive into relevant projects that will beneficially impact our projects. Upcoming VIP projects include research into mediating runoff and erosion using vegetation native to Ecuador. This will be important to buffer the water system being implemented in our San Luis de Yacupugo, Ecuador community. Another VIP project that will occur in the winter term for this project is sustainability research, and what techniques EWB can implement to ensure the project solution is both socially and environmentally sustainable. For our domestic project, VIP project ideas include researching how the Philly Rail Park (12th and Noble) affects rainwater mitigation in the community.

What else should people know about you?

One thing that we at Drexel EWB must stress is that, while our name is ‘Engineers Without Borders’ we are by no means only a club for engineering majors. We strive to have members from a variety of disciplines. Humanitarian engineering projects rarely encompass solely engineering-based problems. Each of our department teams plays a critical role in keeping our club afloat and require different sets of expertise that are learned outside of engineering courses. We at Drexel EWB pride ourselves on the emphasis of soft (project management, team skills, communication) as well as technical (design work, coding, implementation) skills that our members learn while on the job. One does not need much engineering experience to be a part of EWB.

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