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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 2 | Feb. 5, 2004

UBC Engineering Students Raise the Quality of Life in East Timor Village

Engineers Without Borders is making a difference

By Cristina Calboreanu

Villagers in Usu'un, East Timor live off the land. They farm and they fish. It is not easy being a farmer in a place like this, what with rugged terrain, poor soils, and unpredictable rainfall. And it's even harder when you live in a country where 70 per cent of the physical infrastructure was destroyed in an armed conflict in which nearly three quarters of the population was displaced.

Seemingly small things can easily throw off the delicate balance of this life. Things like how long it takes to dry the food that needs to be preserved.

It usually takes more than five days, during which time large amounts of fruit and fish are wasted due to parasitic contamination. That means there will be less to eat.

And that is what UBC third-year Integrated Engineering student Monica Rucki was trying to prevent during her four-month internship with Engineers Without Borders last summer. Rucki worked to build solar dryers that would cut the drying time for fish and fruit to less than two days. Prototypes were built from locally available, inexpensive materials, and locals were trained how to build and maintain the dryers.

Rucki's experience in East Timor was just one example of the work done by Engineers Without Borders (EWB), whose 3,700 members are working on 30 projects in 20 countries to promote human development through access to technology and a focus on building capacity in the local communities.

"It's an attempt at finding sustainable solutions, as opposed to giving something away and then leaving, which is not particularly useful," says Brendan Baker, a recent Metals and Materials Engineering graduate who will be traveling to Senegal later this year for an eight-month internship. He will help develop and implement technologies that will allow locals to process the peanuts and cashew nuts they grow, thus increasing their value. "They found that the nuts are worth next to nothing if sold as grown, in shells -- but if they can shell them, skin them, roast them and then package them, then they're worth much more on the local, national and international market," explains Baker.

The UBC chapter of EWB was founded in 2001 and is already one of the fastest growing and most active in the country.
"We focus on promoting awareness of international development and global issues among students and the Vancouver community," says Rucki, co-president of the UBC chapter. "We do that through our internships abroad, through our local projects, and our Speaker Series here on campus."

The UBC chapter is involved in a variety of overseas projects, such as Scala, an EWB-owned Information and Communications Technology (ICT) project developed in partnership with the Filipino government. The UBC Chapter is trying to raise 40 computers and $15,000 that will go towards setting up ICT training centres in the Philippines, helping Filipino youth develop computer literacy skills and increase their employability. They are hoping some of these youth will in turn become computer teachers able to keep the ICT training centres alive. "The long-term hope is that the centres are able to self-sustain," explains project leader Jordan Marr.

As part of the UBC chapter's local projects, volunteers with the Scala project have partnered with the Learning Exchange to offer free IT classes in shelters in the Downtown Eastside. EWB-UBC also organizes a High School Outreach program aimed at educating high school students about engineering, appropriate technology and international development. The program is supported by Aeroplan members donating their Aeroplan miles through the Miles Without Borders donation program.

Being involved in so many different projects, locally and across the world, has helped EWB-UBC move beyond the confinements of an engineering club. They are now actively trying to recruit students from different fields (such as commerce or political science) who would be interested in putting their knowledge and experience to work.

"International development is multidisciplinary," says Rucki. "To develop new ideas, you need to involve people with different backgrounds, different educations, and different experiences."

Of course, you also need awareness of international development and global issues, which, they say, is conspicuously absent from the academic curriculum -- at least when it comes to engineering.

"There is often a complete lack of study of the social and environmental issues surrounding what we do as engineers," says Baker, the director of curriculum change for the UBC chapter. "UBC is very good technically, but these aspects are often neglected to the detriment of some of the broader and more complicated issues."

That is why EWB is aiming to implement a student-directed seminar on international development, based on their experience in developing countries and provided as a full-credit science and technology course for second-year engineering students. They're hoping to promote awareness of global issues and to educate engineering students to recognize that international development is "a two-way street."

"Often there is a perception that we're sending people over there to teach and to impart our knowledge to the local people, and that's not true," says Baker. "In fact, it may be even more so that you're learning how things are done and how the world works, and you can bring that back and use it here. We hope to see a huge difference in the way things are done here, in terms of addressing issues overseas and even in terms of how we address issues here in Canada."

"One of the greatest things I brought back was just humility," adds Rucki. "You gain an immense appreciation for the fact that there are other ways to live than just the way we live, that really work and that make people happy."

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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