UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 2 | Feb.
UBC Engineering Students Raise the Quality of Life in East
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,"
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
"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."