|FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE |
January 20, 2005
|Contact: Donald Lehr |
The Nolan/Lehr Group
(212) 967-8200 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming To The Aid Of A Mexican Community, Engineering Students Find They, Too, Benefit
The tiny Mexican town of Piedritas is only 20 kilometers south of the Texas border, but it’s a world away from the United States . A hardscrabble community in the Chihuahuan desert, it is virtually inaccessible except by an arduous three-hour journey from the city of Muzquiz , the closest source of gasoline, medicine and groceries. The 230 residents survive largely on meager wages earned from harvesting candelilla, a wild plant unique to the area, which they process in dangerous open vats of sulfuric acid to extract its wax for industry. Poor resource management has left Piedritas with an inadequate water supply which, when available, is tainted with bacteria that results in widespread illness.
A world away, perhaps, but for a group of engineering students from Rice University in Houston , Piedritas has become as close as family. Working with Engineers Without Borders – USA, an emerging humanitarian outreach organization, the students are in the middle of a project in Piedritas to resolve the town’s immediate engineering needs and lay the groundwork so that its citizens are empowered to maintain and improve their own lot far into the future.
That hallmark of Engineers Without Borders – remedy an engineering need and leave the community able to fend for itself – has made it a welcomed presence for people around the world.
Engineers Week 2005 co-chairs ASME (The American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and BP, p.l.c., have made Engineers Without Borders a major focus of their activities. Engineers Week, for more than 50 years the profession’s most visible public awareness and outreach program, has always highlighted the engineering community’s volunteerism. For 2005, the support and expansion of the work of Engineers Without Borders underscores the new global thrust of EWeek and the organization’s intention to take its message worldwide.
ASME’s initial support of EWB includes the Piedritas project and one in Santisuk, Thailand, with engineering students from the University of New Hampshire in Durham. An ASME film crew shooting a documentary about the Santisuk project recently returned from Thailand. More information on the Engineers Week – EWB partnership can be found at www.eweek.org.
The essence of engineering is problem solving, and the Rice University EWB team has had ideal opportunities to prove it. Upon arriving in Piedritas, the students encountered a host of logistical, economic, and social roadblocks as they strove to make progress in a community that had been helped by outside forces before, only to be brought back to square one when left to their own devices. Previous visiting groups, for example, built a water tower that eventually rusted out and pumping stations that broke and went unrepaired. By contrast, EWB is implementing solutions while also sharing the knowledge necessary to keep things running right.
As the students who’ve been helping out in Piedritas for two years will readily explain, the villagers aren’t the only ones who benefit. “The feeling you get is indescribable,” says sophomore Joe Mendez, one of the student team leaders. “One of our biggest accomplishments was tripling the amount of clean water. When it came time for us to leave from that visit, the community came around and each one of them shook the hands of all of us. It was so inspiring. On our next trip we look forward to completing the purification of the town’s water supply.”
Joe’s co-leader, sophomore Candace Marbury, agrees. “The joy comes out of the chance to give what we take for granted in America – water, drinkable water, basic needs – to all the people we work with. It’s one of the core goals of EWB.”
Mendez also says EWB has directly boosted his interest in his engineering studies. “A lot of students lack motivation, they want to know ‘what use is your major?’ A lot of times I wonder ‘why am I in certain classes?’” he says. “Engineers Without Borders gives students a first hand experience with engineering that allows us to see the significance that our efforts can have on a community, and that provides the motivation to study harder.”
“I’m in a sustainable development course and that’s what EWB does,” notes Mendez, “so I’m always thinking about how lecture material can be introduced into the community.”
Marbury, too, says Piedritas is a motivating complement to her schoolwork. “It’s definitely increased my desire to stick with engineering,” she says. “I started out as a computer science major, but now it’s engineering, and it’s thanks to EWB.”
She adds, “Engineering itself also takes on new meaning. Now, when I become an engineer, I don’t want to be a consultant. I want a more active role. I love the things we are doing.”
When asked if it’s worth skipping spring break in Acapulco to spend two weeks in a desert town with very few amenities, Marbury replies, “You learn about the community and the culture and you can’t get that at the beach.”
Another lesson Marbury says she’s learned comes from dealing with a fairly macho culture of small-town Mexico . When the Rice team meets with town leaders, only men show up.
“Serving in a leadership role was very intimidating at first,” she says. “Only men come to the meetings, but now they see me as someone who is just there to help. I accept them and they have returned the acceptance. Now, I feel very comfortable pitching ideas.”
Marbury recalls the sexism she encountered as the only girl in her high school robotics club. “They’d say, ‘Oh, she’s a female,’” she says, “and sometimes I felt like I had to prove myself.” Not any more, especially after Piedritas. “After this experience, I’m going to expect openness and acceptance of me.”
# # #
Engineers Week, founded in 1951 by NSPE, is dedicated to raising public awareness of engineers’ positive contributions to the quality of life. It promotes recognition among parents, teachers and students of the importance of a technical education and a high level of math, science, and technology literacy, and motivates youth to pursue engineering careers in order to provide a diverse and vigorous engineering workforce. Co-chairs for 2005 are ASME International (The American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and BP p.l.c.