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Engineering a better world

ASU students in Engineers Without Borders build projects to improve the quality of life for communities near and far

Students in the ASU chapter of Engineers Without Borders pose for a group photo while on a retreat in the woods.

Students in Arizona State University’s Engineers Without Borders chapter combine their knowledge from across engineering disciplines to help improve access to power, clean water and more around the world. Photo courtesy ASU chapter of Engineers Without Borders

January 23, 2023

Safe drinking water is something Katie Sue Pascavis never had to worry about. So when she heard that many children in the Kenyan village of Naki fall ill from drinking the water there, she felt moved to do something about it.

Pascavis was a freshman when she joined the Arizona State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders and became involved in one of the club’s projectsled by undergraduate Barrett, the Honors College students Tatum Mcmillan, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering, and Jayashree Adivarahan, who is pursuing a double major in electrical engineering and computer science to help provide drinking water to the people of Naki. Today, Pascavis is a senior mechanical engineering major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a global health major in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, and serves as co-president of the club and project lead for the Kenyan International Project.

The most rewarding part of Engineers Without Borders and programs like it, said Jared Schoepf, an assistant teaching professor and faculty advisor for ASU Engineers Without Borders, "is that students never ask ‘When will I apply this knowledge or equation?' Instead, they are actively applying their skills on each real project. Our students are not waiting to make an impact after graduation; they are making an impact today."

ASU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter is part of the national-scale professional and student organization Engineers Without Borders USA, which exists to help empower communities around the world to meet basic human needs. The local professional chapter provides mentorship to the ASU chapter, guiding student teams through each project’s completion. ASU Engineers Without Borders projects also involve corporate and nonprofit partners that donate resources to ensure student initiatives provide maximum impact to the communities they serve.

So in addition to gaining practical engineering experience that changes lives for the better, students network with mentors, learn from guest speakers and take part in skill sessions to continue learning beyond the classroom.

The club also partners with Engineering Projects in Community Service, commonly known as EPICS, at ASU.

EPICS is a national, award-winning social entrepreneurship program that ASU students can also take for course credit. EPICS participants can enroll in one of two undergraduate courses: FSE104: EPICS Gold Feasibility and Planning or FSE404: EPICS Gold: EPICS in Action, while solving problems in underserved communities using their engineering skill sets.

With similar goals to ASU Engineers Without Borders, the two organizations’ collaboration is a natural fit, said Schoepf, who also serves as director for EPICS.

Aside from the Kenyan International Project, the ASU Engineers Without Borders chapter has four other large projects currently in progress. Their other international project, in Ethiopia, works to provide plastic recycling capabilities for Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park and a nearby town, Debark. The area is heavily littered with nearly 120,000 plastic water bottles that are left by visitors annually.

The project seeks to implement small-scale plastic shredders and injection machines that can handle the entire capacity of littered water bottles each year. Shredders would reduce the water bottles down to small flakes of plastic, and the injection machines would melt the flakes down and mold them into new products such as cups, plates, toys and even construction materials.

Kaleb Tefera, a project co-lead and second-year computer science major, says he knew the project was perfect for him after attending a general ASU Engineers Without Borders meeting.

“Because I grew up in Ethiopia, I thought I could really help the team as I can speak the language in the region,” Tefera says. “I could also make connections in the area, as well as understand and explain any cultural differences that might be new to the team.”

The student team aims to travel to Ethiopia to work with community members and local engineering students to set up the machines later this year. They plan to continue to work with the students and community to develop skills and maintain the machines together thereafter.

While the project will initially only feature the machines in Debark, the team will make the design accessible for communities across Ethiopia. ASU Engineers Without Borders partners with universities in Ethiopia to share their design knowledge with local students. They even hope to make the design open source for sustainability efforts around the world.

“I am very excited to see where this project is going and I’m glad to be a part of it,” says project co-lead Tyler Norkus, a second-year mechanical engineering major. “I feel like it could have a great impact for the community in Debark, as the goal is to create a circular economy based on recycling plastic and create more jobs there.”

ASU Engineers Without Borders is also working on three stateside projects in Arizona. One of the student teams is implementing mountain bike trails to encourage ecotourism and provide local children with an after-school activity. Another student team is building dams to restore irrigation capabilities to a farming community, and the third student team is working to provide solar electricity for sustainable energy.

Students interested in helping communities around the world through ASU Engineers Without Borders can attend a general meeting, held Wednesday evenings on ASU’s Tempe campus in Engineering G Wing 120/122.

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