Some of the EWB Challenge winners on their training course in Mexico.

EWB Challenge winners return from international training course

The winners of this year’s Engineering Without Borders (EWB) Challenge recently returned from their prize: a 17-day training course in Mexico

The aim of the EWB Challenge is to introduce engineering students to skills they will need to address future global challenges. These include factors like being able to successfully work within different cultures, to have an understanding of non-technical local issues that may affect the outcome of an engineering project as well as developing project management skills and empathy on a professional level.

NTU’s winning project was ‘the boy and the crocodile playground’, a play park made entirely out of bamboo for the people of Codo, East Timor – employing locally available materials and constructed by the same methods the community uses to build their houses.

“Our tutor wanted us to think of concepts individually and I came up with the play park concept after thoroughly researching East Timor’s culture to get a sense of how the people look at the world,” explains NTU’s Frank Worcester. “Then everyone had to vote as to which concept was best after which we got divided into teams to submit ideas to EWB - and whichever one was accepted that group went through to the final. When we won I couldn’t believe it!”

Alice Stuart-Grumbar, is one of the team from Durham University who won last year – but who had delayed her prize trip for a year. Her team came up with a rice husk gasification system for the An Minh region of south-west Vietnam. The area currently has an electricity grid powered by a massive 1.5GW petroleum-fuelled power station so the team decided to find a more sustainable energy solution.

“We looked into how the community lived and discovered that the Vietnamese are having a problem disposing of their rice husks,” Alice explains. “So we solved that problem by suggesting a way of using the husks to make electricity to supply 500 houses – and we factored in how the community could work with the project. We may not have had the most technically sound idea but because we considered other elements that really helped us win.”

The training begins…

The training course comprised ‘a day in the classroom’ learning about the theory, design and development of various sustainable projects the teams were later going to visit in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende – as well as a mini-master class on micro-funding.

“Many of the projects are funded using systems similar to Kickstarter,” says Sam Gale. “Members of the public can donate small sums of money rather than one person investing a big loan. That way if a particular project fails each person will only have lost say, around £10 – but if it succeeds then everyone gets their investment back.”

Rainwater harvesting systems

The first week was spent in and around Mexico City where the teams went to visit Isla Urbana’s rainwater harvesting systems in the community of Ajusco-Medio. This region of the city is struggling with a lack of access to water and many houses do not even have a connection to the city’s water system. Isla Urbana trains plumbers in each neighborhood to install the rainwater harvesting systems – so that there is a pool of local knowledge to deal with any problems. The organisation also supports the local economy by buying all the materials from the neighborhood hardware stores.

“I found rainwater harvesting very interesting,” says Débora Bouvie, a Brazilian exchange student at NTU. “Aside from people who don’t have access to the grid it’s particularly pertinent for communities in the highlands where it is difficult to use pumps because there is not enough pressure. They capture the water from the roof but they don’t use the first rainwater after the dry season because the roof will be very dirty. This is called ‘first flush’ – where the second lot of rainwater goes down tubes, through filters, into storage tanks and is then fed into taps. It means the people can collect for five months during the rainy season and have really good quality water without relying on the government.”

The Center for Appropriate Technology and Indigenous Sustainability

The trip was punctuated by a quick visit to the Mayan pyramids in Teotihuacan and hot springs in Puebla before heading off to San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guajuato to explore the Center for Appropriate Technology and Indigenous Sustainability (CATIS). Set on 23 acres of land CATIS-Mexico is a sustainable living and R&D centre in the areas of energy, water, sanitation, agriculture and construction.

CATIS-Mexico works to address the challenges facing low-income families and communities, and offers sustainable development workshop training in all of these fields to both local and global students.

“I learnt how to build with mud bricks,” says Alice. “They’re much better than normal bricks – they’re breathable so you can have ambient temperatures without having to use air conditioning – but you can also use them in any climate. The whole CATIS building is made from compressed blocks, mud plaster and cement that has nopal cactus chopped up in it.”

Sam was also particularly taken with the techniques employed at CATIS – which also include solar thermal power and methods of using cows to produce methane gas and the waste as fertilizer.

“Now I may consider building my future home out of renewable resources because they are just as good as that which is currently used in the UK,” he says. “Except it’s cheaper and is less damaging to the environment. As long as one sticks to the general guidelines in terms of structure – the bricks are just as stable.”

Gaining a new perspective on engineering and design

Aside from a spot of sunburn all four EWB winners returned to the UK equipped with a new perspective on engineering and design.

“It was pretty amazing to go into people’s houses in the countryside and see how they lived but I found it pretty shocking how little water the people seemed to live off and the problems they have with that,’ says Alice. “This trip has taught me that you can’t just take a technology to people and expect them to accept it…you have to understand the culture and have a certain amount of empathy with the people you’re working for.”

The human side of engineering

Débora, who will be returning to Brazil next January, is currently on a three month work placement at NTU working with insulation systems and solid panels.

“I was expecting a lot of technical things but we got to see the human side of engineering,” she says. “I learnt that it is really important to understand the people you’re trying to help so you can deliver better solutions that they can understand and actually implement. I am doing a presentation about my time in Mexico because they find it really interesting and perhaps can use some of the ideas at NTU.”

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