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Holistic learning in Honduras

Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering students join with other majors to design water systems for rural communities in Honduras.

In August 2013, a week before classes began, chemical engineering student Bob Michalowski decided on a whim to check out a new engineering design class he had never heard of before. If he didn’t like it, he’d drop the class immediately, he told himself.

“It only took one class to rope me in, and to this day, it remains in the top tier of my list of the most enjoyable classes throughout my entire curriculum,” he said.

Now a process engineer at Koppers, Michalowski is still involved with the class – ENG 398: Real World Design: The Honduras Water Project. Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in May 2014, he has been a mentor for the technical design portion of the course.

Now in its third year, the course was established by College of Engineering teaching associate Ann-Perry Witmer, a professional engineer who has worked with nongovernmental organizations such as Wisconsin Water for the World and Engineers Without Borders, and then-graduate students Eileen Walz and Keilin Jahnke (now a co-instructor), with support from  an assistant dean in the college at the time.

University of Illinois students encourage mothers in Las Queseras Honduras to learn about proper hygiene and sanitation to protect their children’s health during a meeting in the village school.
University of Illinois students encourage mothers in Las Queseras Honduras to learn about proper hygiene and sanitation to protect their children’s health during a meeting in the village school.
During the two-semester course, students design and implement a water distribution system in a rural community in Honduras. Students come from a variety of engineering disciplines—chemical, civil, mechanical, electrical, and agricultural engineering—as well as community health, nutritional sciences, Latin American Studies, and more. The class is open to undergraduate and graduate students.

In the beginning Witmer tries to break down any preconceptions about service projects or service trips for students, many of whom have gone on such trips before. The approach is not: travel, build, leave.

Residents of rural communities in developing countries like Honduras “need consultation, not a hand,” Witmer said. Students should act as consultants, she said. She has outlined several principles to ensure community ownership of the project: long-term sustainability, mutual benefit, local expert involvement, and investment from all involved parties.

Aiming for “a holistic-type of learning” experience for students, Witmer has the students arrange themselves into teams or groups, which helps them learn about their own strengths and contributions. Each group has a different focus: technical support (such as water collection and treatment), social support (health education, community impact), and political (governance, water rights, land ownership).

By the end of the first semester, the class has a preliminary plan and delivers a presentation to their professional mentors and staff from the nongovernmental organization ADEC, or Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario, the NGO that works in water, sanitation, health and hygiene issues in rural Honduras.

“Real-life projects”
The plan is further revised based on feedback and additional information. For the first two years of the class, students traveled to Honduras during Spring Break. This year, the class will travel to the country during the winter break. Once there, the students meet community leaders and go from house to house to talk with residents to find out how they use water and what they expect from the water delivery system.

Illinois students pose with newly trained laborers from Las Queseras, Honduras, and support staff from NGO partner Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario in front of a new ferrocement water storage tank that they jointly built during a visit in March 2014.
Illinois students pose with newly trained laborers from Las Queseras, Honduras, and support staff from NGO partner Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario in front of a new ferrocement water storage tank that they jointly built during a visit in March 2014.
In the mountainous areas where they have worked, natural springs provide water for residents. The water tends to be distributed to homes via black rubber hoses that crisscross the land and it is generally not disinfected. Students often encounter an array of challenges, such as landownership disputes, geographic and climate challenges or cultural beliefs about water that may prevent some residents from, for example, wanting to treat water with chlorine.

“The cornerstone of success is having strong support on the ground,” Witmer said.

The projects, which vary depending on the community where they work, are not ones that are built and installed over a week, but ones that tend to be built by the community. While the comprehensive water systems are built by the communities themselves, the students try to provide new ideas and techniques to address specific issues within the communities they serve. In the first two years, students taught Honduran masons a new technique for building a ferrocement tank in Las Queseras and pilot-tested a pesticide-removing filter made from a large garbage can and charred coconut shells for Fatima, both near Marcala. This year the students will be working in Moñtana Verde and unlike past years, they will be working with surface water from a nearby river.

These are “real-life projects” that will influence the lives of others, “but you also get to develop it in person and throughout a long period of time, which thus constantly brings what you've learned in a classroom to a real-life scenario, making everything more interesting,” said Francisco Battiti, a sophomore studying chemical engineering. He took the course his freshman year.

“What I found most challenging (about the course) is that it not only encourages you, but you find yourself forced to think differently. It enhances your problem solving and critical thinking skills. It forces you to step in the shoes of others, to work and develop and derive solutions with a very limited supply of information,” Battiti said.

Participating in the class and traveling to the town of Marcala has had a profound effect on him by setting the trajectory of the career he hopes to develop one day, Battiti said.

“It made me aware of the world-wide problem of the lack of access to clean water around the world. As a ChemE, I want to fight this problem, perhaps not always by building new water systems for communities, but by finding new and better ways to clean and purify water that communities around the world may access,” he said.

Born in Argentina and raised in Honduras, Battiti thought he knew all about his country. But he had never been to Marcala before and even when he participated in the Medical Brigades, a program aimed at bringing aid to rural villages, the group stayed in a nearby hotel and drove to the villages every morning.

“Staying in the community is a completely different and much more gratifying experience. I got, to a certain extent, to live the life lived by the villagers,” he said.

For Michalowski, the experience put “my education pedal to the metal,” and brought together ChBE course material into “one solid foundation of understanding.” He found the class complementary to ChBE 431, “Process Design,” particularly with learning how to “zoom out and look at the big picture without getting caught up in the smaller details.”

Community leaders in Fatima, Honduras, explain to NGO staff and Illinois students about the village composition and layout so they can assess how potable water is used in the rural village.
Community leaders in Fatima, Honduras, explain to NGO staff and Illinois students about the village composition and layout so they can assess how potable water is used in the rural village.
The course also helped him learn how to overcome challenges related to communication and cultural understanding.

“I've found that in a chemical plant setting, there are many non-engineering personnel who have a certain way of doing their work, and if you come along with a change in the process or a change in the work routine, it's often met with confrontation and contempt, even if it is an improvement in process safety. This class gave me the skill set to deal with these scenarios,” he said.

Funding for the project construction has been provided by a grant from Rotary International, and the course also has received financial support from ARCO/Murray of Downers Grove, Illinois.