Social Engineering

During summer break, many college students spend their free time working at fast-food joints or hanging out with friends. But University of Texas student Amanda Cuellar spent last summer doing much-needed development work in the heavily rural Mexican state of Chiapas.

University of Texas student Amanda Cuellar designs—and digs—latrines in rural Chiapas, Mexico. © Marie-Andrée Beaudoin/ESW

A chemical engineering student, Cuellar worked with Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), a nonprofit organization started in 2001 by a group of students and professionals with the goal of applying technical know-how to development and environmental issues. Cuellar says, “The more I learned about sustainability the more I saw the need to design technology that would not damage our chances for survival in the future.” Cuellar worked in the town of Damasco designing dry-compost latrines.

According to an ESW report, “The proper disposal of human waste is a problem in developing countries and likewise in the rural community of Damasco
This sanitation problem leads to a high occurrence of vector-borne diseases and the contamination of groundwater.”

Cuellar says she was impressed by Mexico’s abundance of natural resources, but stunned at the lack of potable water in poor communities. “There are 71 households that need latrines, and we still have 62 to build,” she says. The next phase is to educate the community about sanitation, which is being done by COPIN, a local nonprofit group.

In the last five years, ESW’s network has expanded to include 100 campuses around the nation, providing opportunities for students to participate in five major areas of sustainable development: water and sanitation, energy, the built environment, information and communication technology, and agriculture.

“An important part of ESW’s strategy is to raise public awareness of critical global issues through campaigns aimed at reducing poverty and improving global sustainability,” explains Regina Clewlow, the group’s executive director. Some of ESW’s past and current projects include improving waste management in rural Alaska, developing vegetable oil as an alternative vehicle fuel in New York, and evaluating and designing water distribution systems in Honduras and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The first student chapter of ESW was at Cornell University, where students helped design and test solar ovens for use in Morocco and Ecuador. An ESW chapter at the California Institute of Technology designed an inexpensive (less than $5), hand-used machine to remove dry corn kernels from the cob—a boon to subsistence farmers in Guatemala. In America, automatic corn shellers sell for around $10,000, which is out of reach for populations who live on less than $1 a day. In Guatemala, corn is a crucial staple, and is made into cornmeal and atoll, a local drink.

ESW’s director of education and outreach, Meredith Nelson, says the group is also working on a Sustain! Campaign to “educate people about sustainability and to allow our members to take leadership roles in making a difference.” The campaign was launched during National Engineers Week in late February, and will continue through the year.