Seeds of Change Grow Through Community Collaboration

Lydia Cowles
Lydia Cowles

For as long as she can remember, Lydia Cowles has felt compelled to use her talents to help others. Though she excelled in math and science, it was a formative experience in elementary school that set her on the path to becoming a civil engineer.

“There was an impactful program called ‘Walking for Water’ that had us carry several liters of water for a couple kilometers to give us a sense of what it’s like for young girls in Africa who walk miles each day to collect clean water,” Cowles recalled. “Between that and learning about the Flint water crisis, I realized solving problems like this is what I want to dedicate my life to.”

Now a fifth-year civil engineering major, Cowles is getting first-hand experience doing just that through a research project examining recurrent flooding issues in Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood. Eastwick has contended with flooding for decades due to its low elevation near the convergence of Cobbs and Darby Creeks. Recent storms like Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have exacerbated the issue.

Cowles learned of the project in her Sustainable Water Resources Engineering class, led by Franco Montalto, PhD, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering. In the class, students collaborate with local communities on real-world problems. As part of a group evaluating flood resilience and mitigation solutions, Cowles surveyed Eastwick residents to gauge infrastructure needs.

“I helped distribute a questionnaire created after past floods to see what safeguards people have implemented and what concerns remain,” she explained. “We had a much lower response rate than previous surveys – this taught us that, when it comes to getting this kind of input, you need to act while the memory is still fresh.”

One thing she learned during the survey is that less than half of respondents had contingency plans for future major flooding. “It underscored the importance of our work but felt daunting, since these projects unfold over decades and I’ll only get to see a small part of it happen during my time as a student,” Cowles reflected.

Still, the experience reaffirmed her ambition to pursue stormwater management as a career path. Her previous co-ops with engineering consulting firms, including at Pennoni and at AKRF where she worked on design for green infrastructure projects within Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters program, showed that even modest green infrastructure investments can make a difference.

“Seeing Eastwick’s vulnerabilities made it clear much bigger solutions are required,” Cowles said. “I hope to stay involved planning and implementing comprehensive defenses.”

Reflecting on the project, Cowles noted “at the time it felt like we weren't doing a lot. It felt like spinning our wheels with all the little things. But it's really interesting to see what came of it." She recognized that while her individual contribution was small, it ultimately fed into the bigger machine of government agencies, community groups, residents and experts working together.

"You have to be willing to plant seeds and trust that over time, with enough people nurturing the garden, it will bear fruit," she said.

No matter where her training takes her next, Cowles will carry this lesson — that progress includes small, cumulative actions by many hands over years. She may not see the fruits of her labor fully ripen until after she graduates, but that won’t stop her from sowing seeds of change.

Learn more about a degree in civil engineering.

In This Article