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Engineering: One Border at a Time

Posted On : June 24th, 2008

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Sacramento State engineering students are working in Panama this summer to develop a sustainable irrigation system for a group of six rural villages in the Anton region.

Sac State's Engineers Without Borders chapter began the project in November 2006 and the student group first visited the Anton region of Panama to begin gathering data for the project over spring break of 2007.

This summer, the group will spend two weeks from May 27 to June 7 gathering more data and mapping the region using portable global positioning system devices, said Javier Soria, senior civil engineering major and president of the Sac State Engineers Without Borders chapter.

The Anton district of Panama is a relatively dry, rural agricultural region that can support a variety of crops if water can be obtained.

The focus of the project is to determine how to transport water to fields during the dry season, which runs from May to December, and implement an irrigation system that will be sustainable by the local population, Soria said.

"The locals can't grow crops during the dry season when they don't get a drop of rain," Soria said. "We want to help them be able to expand their crop growth, diversify their diets and create a crop surplus the locals can sell to gain capital."

The work on the project is done entirely by students who receive support and technical advice from the non-governmental organization Sustainable Harvest International, which proposed the project to Engineers Without Borders - USA and the group's faculty advisers, Soria said.

Eugene Dammel, professor of civil engineering and faculty adviser to the Sac State Engineers Without Borders chapter, said his role is to stay in the background and give advice when necessary. On this summer's trip, Dammel plans to help students make sure they completely map the area and include all necessary terrain features, such as ridge lines and stream courses.

"This is an area where students don't have a lot of experience yet," Dammel said. "We try to do as much on the job training as we can."

The project is funded entirely through donations and grants. The group received a $4,000 grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund in February and has received donations from the Kleinfelder engineering firm and Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

The group expects to finish the project with two or three trips to Panama.

Soria said he would like to see the Sac State chapter grow and take on more projects in Central America, Africa and New Orleans, which is still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Both Soria and Dammel would like to see non-engineering students join the group.

Students in the social science fields can help the group work through cultural barriers and assess the impact of projects on local communities after the projects are completed, Dammel said.

Soria said he joined the Sac State Engineers Without Borders chapter because he has always wanted to do humanitarian work related to engineering.

Engineering is a service profession, said Emir Jose Macari, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. People do not go into engineering for the money, although the salary is good, but to help society and make things better and more efficient, he said.

"Our Engineers Without Borders students are dedicated to helping less fortunate people in other countries and in so doing, they are learning a great lesson in life: 'The Power of Giving,'" Macari said. "They are applying their engineering knowledge to help different communities here and abroad."

"Engineers Without Borders - USA is a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life. This partnership involves the implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students," according to the Engineers Without Borders - USA website.

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