By Karina Mazhukhina | Aug 1, 2016

Dozens of UW students have traveled over the last few years to La Vega del Volcan, a remote village high in the mountains of Guatemala. The students listened to community members discuss some of the problems facing the village, and worked to help develop sustainable solutions.

Since January 2014, UW Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has been working on completing a multi-purpose community center in the area. The UW team is traveling back this upcoming winter break to finish building the outdoor superstructure. 

The center will include 12 concrete columns to support the steel roof structure and concrete bleachers that will be used during community events, like a sports field for kids to play and a market space for vendors around town.

“It’s one thing to design a structure on paper, but it’s another to go down and work with a community and provide something they otherwise wouldn’t have,” said David McIntyre, UW EWB student chapter president. “We make sure that we’re building a viable structure, not something that will crumble in two to three years.”

McIntyre looks back on his experiences in Guatemala and is still in awe of the impact him and his fellow UW peers made in the small town of Vega del Volcan.

“There was a full Independence Day parade (celebrating their independence from Spain) going through the entire valley,” he said. “Kids would come and play soccer and before that wasn’t really possible. The roof wasn’t even up yet. It was just a concrete slab. But the fact that they were able to interact with it (community center) was really great.”

Along with the outdoor center, EWB has implemented a variety of sustainable solutions in impoverished areas around the world since the UW Student Chapter first began in 2005. Projects have ranged from the construction of safe roofs and stoves to a trout hatchery for the village in La Vega del Volcan.

McIntyre, along with a team of other UW students and one to two professional mentors, go through a specific process when deciding which sustainable solutions communities are in need of. For example, every project requires an assessment trip to see what needs to be repaired or built. They then outline the designs and send them for review to the main Engineers Without Borders headquarters in Colorado. Once approved, trips will be scheduled to implement the designs. 

The number of implementation trips varies. For instance, UW EWB students have been to Guatemala four times since the project to construct an outside community center began in 2014. UW students, mentors, and members from the community all work together to implement the designs. One to two years after the project is completed the UW team travels back to check on the progress as part of a maintenance trip.

“We work hand in hand with the community to make sure that what we’re giving them isn’t just what we want but what they want and need,” said McIntyre. “I want to take what I learn in class and be able to travel and help communities around the world.” It’s really rewarding.

McIntyre and the rest of the UW Chapter’s efforts aren't only focused internationally; they have also completed UW-based sustainable projects. The on-campus solar kiln is one of them.

UW facility Services collaborated with UW EWB to design and build a solar kiln that will dry milled lumber from harvested trees. The lumber will be reused for different projects on campus, including UW art projects. To help kick-start the endeavor, the Campus Sustainability Fund awarded the collaborators $3,000.

Also, there are a few new projects in store. Currently, UW EWB is applying for a new project proposal that focuses on sustainable water systems. Communities in Belize and Ecuador often times get flooded from huge storms in the area. The students will help design a drainage system to lesson the impact of floods.

EWB is also working with the UW Mechanical and Biology Departments to create a polio filtration device to test the presence of polio in water samples in developing countries, where the rate of polio is increasing.

"If you go to UW or any college in the U.S. you just think it’s so horrible that we have midterms and finals,” said McIntyre. "When I was in the kitchen in Guatemala there was about 25 cans of baby formula. They were for the kids’ lunch. It just puts everything into perspective.”

Photo courtesy of UW Engineers Without Borders