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Engineers Without Borders Visit Chirimoto, Peru

A rooster begins to crow before dawn, a pained screech that five engineering students from BU’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders know all too well. Thankfully, the shriek means they still have two hours before they have to climb out of their sleeping bags and compete for the single, slow-drip, slightly warm shower.

A little more sleep would be useful, because as soon as breakfast is done they will lug nearly 60 pounds of surveying equipment up to the ridgeline above the Peruvian village of Chirimoto, hacking a trail with machetes much of the way. By day’s end, if all goes well, they will return to the village with a better understanding of the system of aged pipes that delivers water to 300 people deep in the Amazonas region. With that knowledge, they will refine their plan for reconstructing the failing pipes and filters, a project that will give the families of Chirimoto a more reliable — and healthier — supply of water.
For six weeks last summer, the group from BU’s three-year-old EWB chapter worked in the hills around Chirimoto, and they hope to return over winter break and again next summer.

The students came to at the urging of Chirimoto native Luis Chavez (GRS’04,’10), a Ph.D. candidate and a College of Arts & Sciences senior teaching fellow in Spanish.

“When I returned to Chirimoto after much time away, I saw there was a lot missing,” says Chavez, a novelist and poet. “I saw that my town needs infrastructure. We need education. We need health.”

Three years ago, when he heard about the inception of BU’s EWB chapter, Chavez approached the group with an idea he suspected they would find irresistible: a challenging project in a distant land that would benefit a deserving population. Chavez was right, and in January 2008, with his help, five members visited Chirimoto to suss out a plan to build solar-powered generators that would bring electricity to the town.

On arriving, the group learned that the town had recently been wired, but the power had yet to be switched on. The students turned to plan B: finding a way to clean up a water system contaminated with silt, clay, and coliforms, pollution that contributes to residents’ 100 percent parasitic infection rate over a lifetime.

Last spring, with money raised from a blind auction, EWB bought an optical surveying instrument called a total station, and in late June four undergrads, Jeremy Schein (ENG’10), Richard Burriola (ENG’10), Elissa Mueller (ENG’12), and Charles Jahnke (ENG’10) — my son — made their way to the village. Francis Hopcroft, a civil engineering professor from Wentworth Institute of Technology, served as trip advisor, and the group was joined two weeks later by Paolo Belfiore (ENG’09), who had been part of the group visiting earlier.

Most of their days were dedicated to mapping and checking the pipes and filters of four water delivery systems, trying to determine the most efficient way to construct a single system that would pump clean water to the largest number of people. Their recommendations have been submitted to engineering authorities in the Peruvian government, whose help is necessary to complete the construction. The engineering students also studied ways to redesign the wood-burning stoves made of adobe that are used in most homes to draw smoke out of the kitchens. The students also found time to write a blog about their time in Chirimoto.

Schein, president of BU’s EWB chapter, says the larger mission in Chirimoto is to change the “engineering culture of Peru,” where many projects are left unfinished.

Burriola believes the trip changed his life at least as much as his efforts will change the lives of people in Chirimoto. “This was more than a great educational experience,” he says. “I learned things that I could never learn in school. It’s easy to see why Luis Chavez is doing this for his hometown. It’s just so humbling to see people work so hard for so little, and yet they are happier than most of the people we see walking down the street every day. Just seeing that has motivated me to work hard, do my piece in the world, and live life as a Chirimotino would.”

“An experience like this allows students to think about how varied the world is,” says Chavez. “There is not just one political style or one economic or social way of living. The people in Chirimoto need to improve their quality of life, but they have some things that people don’t have in Boston. They don’t do things with the same standard of quality, but they have some things to offer.”

- Art Jahnke

College of Engineering Block Party & BBQ

Find out the engineering secrets to walking on water! The BU College of Engineering hosts the annual block party barbecue for students, alumni, faculty, staff and family. Attendees enjoy a live DJ, raffle prizes, and burgers, hot dogs, cotton candy, ice cream and popcorn. The free event is sponsored by the College of Engineering Development and Alumni Relations Office and the Career Development Office.