Student engineers mix science with local development in Panama

A group of Florida State student researchers is working to bring clean water to a small village in Panama.

The Bahia Roja community lives on top of a mountain on the Bocas Del Toro region in Panama. On one side of the mountain are beautiful resorts and mansions. On the other side is a poor community that has to go up and down the mountain each day to get water for basic needs.

“They were living in paradise, not even a mile from million dollar homes, but didn’t have clean water,” said Chase Greist, a senior in biomedical engineering.

Greist is a member of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering group Engineers Without Borders. The chapter of 25 members has been active for several years and sends students to other parts of the world where they can put the skills they learn in the classroom to good use on local infrastructure projects.

The group first traveled to Panama for 11 days last May to do an initial assessment of the area and its needs. They also met with community members, gauged the availability of supplies and did some preliminary design work.

“There was a lot we had to research,” said Allie Joura, the group’s president. “We needed to understand the social needs first, plus the basic topography of the area.”

When the group first discussed going to Panama, they didn’t have an exact plan in mind.

But when they visited in May, it became clear that there was a need for clean water. Local water supplies were chock full of E. coli, which among other things can cause gastrointestinal and urinary tract infections.

They were able to build a rain water-catching system for the community as a temporary fix. And when they return to the region this spring, they will start work on a more advanced system.

In the meantime, they’re trying to stay in touch with community leaders.

“We really wanted to go there and prove that we were good on our word,” said Josh Lorenz, a senior civil engineering major.

EWB President Allie Joura (second from left) and other members of the team worked on a rain-catching system in Panama last May.
EWB President Allie Joura (second from left) and other members of the team worked on a rain-catching system in Panama last May.

To do that, the group strongly relied on the assistance of FSU’s Panama campus. Students spent two days at the Panama campus working with students and faculty before heading to Bahia Roja.

Then-student Ruben Rodriguez joined the group as a translator and go-between for the group and the residents of Bahia Roja.

“I was still a student at FSU-Panama when they came to the university to make a presentation on their mission and vision and their interest in starting a program in Panama,” Rodriguez said in an email. “I identified myself with the team as I was previously engaged with the Environmental Club and knew their motivations and enthusiasm were strong.”

The group Engineers Without Borders is a national group with university chapters. The group must submit project proposals, with the help of advisers, to the national chapter for review.

The students get the benefit of using the skills they learned in the classroom in a real-life situation, and gain experience outside the world of Tallahassee.

“It’s more than the technical part,” said Tarek Abichou, FAMU-FSU College of Engineering professor and the group’s faculty adviser. “We try to push that as much as we can. At that age, to be exposed to how people live, to different cultures, to different struggles people deal with —that really gives them a chance to grow and become global citizens.”

In addition to Abichou, the group has five advisers from the professional world, including former group members Justin Vandenbroeck, an engineer for a solar energy company in San Francisco, and Eric Zuidema, who now works for a top engineering firm in Miami.

Vandenbroeck said that the experience really gave him a better view of how other countries operate, but also taught him skills in fundraising and marketing that he wouldn’t learn through his engineering courses.

“I had changed my major to engineering and was looking for an organization that allowed me to broaden my global perspective and utilize the engineering discipline to create a better world, not just building gadgets and creating robots,” he said. “I found Engineers Without Borders to be a conduit to that.”

The group will be raising money for its spring trip. Check their Facebook page for more updates and photos of their project and for fundraising information.