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Publish Date: 10/24/2005


Engineers put skills to humanitarian use
From the Asian tsunami to Katrina, group based in Longmont is ready to help rebuilding efforts

LONGMONT — Johnny Jannetto went on an eye-opening journey after he graduated from his New Zealand high school in 2002.

Before traveling to Eastern Europe and Morocco, Jannetto never questioned his ambition to become a successful engineer. After the trip, he decided he wanted to spend his life helping people in underdeveloped places.

“I saw people in need of help,” Jannetto said. “I realized there are so many other people out there much more worse off than me.”

With a new outlook on life, Jannetto came to the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2003 as a mechanical engineering major still looking for a way to satisfy his humanitarian interests. Last year, he found out about the nonprofit organization Engineers Without Borders.

“It’s what’s keeping me in school right now,” Jannetto said.

Engineers Without Borders-USA, founded by CU engineering professor Bernard Amadei, is a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Longmont. It has about 100 chapters at universities across the United States, and the first chapter formed at CU.

The group’s first project was in San Pablo, Belize, a Mayan village of about 250 people. Angel Tzec, a representative of the Belize Ministry of Agriculture, invited Amadei to visit the village in April 2000 and examine the possibility of designing and installing a water-delivery system.

“Bernard realized the potential of volunteer engineers going around helping communities and saw that it was a good learning experience for students,” EWB project manager Meg VanSciver said. “EWB helps future engineers be more conscious of the world.”

Since 2000, EWB has pursued more than 300 projects in Central America, South America, Southeast Asia and Africa. More than 85 projects are in the works around the world.

This summer, the organization began working on post-tsunami infrastructure problems in Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia.

“There’s so much to be done, we may never really be done,” VanSciver said.

EWB is rebuilding nine schools in Sri Lanka, working on water and sanitation projects in India and repairing fish hatcheries in Indonesia.

The volunteer engineers will also play a role in rebuilding the Gulf Coast, particularly the New Orleans levees, after the bulk of the relief effort is done. VanSciver said she anticipates EWB’s involvement to begin in December or January.

“For Louisiana, I’m not sure how we will handle it, because the scope of the problem is so vast,” she said. “It’s the same as it was with the tsunami: Once the initial chaos is gone, then people can identify specific projects to work on.”

Community involvement is one of the most important aspects of all EWB projects. Communities must submit applications for projects and be willing to work with the engineers.

“If the community is not involved, there will be no ownership of the project,” VanSciver said.

For example, if EWB implements a water-filtration system, at least one person in the community needs to know how to clean it periodically to maintain the equipment and keep it running.

“If they don’t help with the project, your project won’t work in three to five years,” VanSciver said.

“We educate, implement a project and create sustainable, long-lasting infrastructure,” she said.

EWB’s reputation is spreading through the United States, with VanSciver receiving 10 to 12 inquiries a week from universities that want to start chapters.

Several CU students who volunteer for the organization said they get more out of the projects than just engineering experience.

Ian Elliott, a senior engineering major, said he likes the organization’s goal of having a long-term commitment.

And Jordan Spatz, a first-year graduate student in aerospace engineering, said: “I graduated in engineering and came to the conclusion that I was fortunate to have a lot of engineering knowledge and wanted to use it to give back to the rest of the world.”

For others, the projects give a humanistic meaning to engineering.

“What I get out of this is less quantifiable. It’s the relationships with the communities,” senior engineering major Evan Thomas said.

Katherine Crowell can be reached at 303-684-5336 or tcnewsintern2@times-call.com.


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