Collecting water for cooking, cleaning and other household chores was a daily affair for the women of La Esperanza, a rural village of about 1,000 people in the mountainous region of Guatemala.
But the University of North Florida’s first all-female civil engineering team designed a new community water system, which was built by local workers and began operating this spring. The system not only benefited an entire community and freed up hours of time for its women, but also showcased the skills and potential of the five team members who graduated in early May.
“We hope we’ve helped show that engineering isn’t just a man in a suit working in a cabin, it’s about passionate people solving problems in the world,” said team leader Taylor Broussard. , 22 years old.
“Helping others meet their basic needs in life is one of the most important things you can do,” said Amber Slack, team member, also 22.
Christopher Brown, their associate professor of civil engineering at UNF, said he “couldn’t be prouder.”
“This team of engineering students was not only the first all-female civil engineering team in UNF history, it was truly one of the best teams I have ever worked with,” said he declared. “It was obviously more than just a project for them, they really care about the villagers. They have designed an amazing project on an international scale, overcoming language barriers and successfully organizing with our partners.”
A LOT OF LOGISTICS
The team was assembled easily.
Broussard, Slack, Sammy Kovalenko, Piper Austin and Rosemarie Pinto were already friends and wanted their one-year senior engineering project to focus on water resources.
They were one of eight teams on Brown’s Graduate Civil Engineering Synthesis Course, which focuses on community projects with real clients. Most of the projects are in northeast Florida, but some have been in other parts of the state, Haiti and Guatemala, he said.
This is followed by design, planning, fundraising and several team trips to Guatemala.
Rosemary Takacs, former Peace Corps volunteer and member of the Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary Club, was instrumental in the process. She met Broussard through the student’s work on a similar water project in Honduras.
Takacs put the team in touch with Agua Para la Salud, a nonprofit organization in Guatemala that builds water supply systems and other projects, and a similar nonprofit based in the United States. , Wisconsin Water for the World. She knew the area, guided and translated for the team on their visits to the country, team members said.
She also put them in touch with her Rotary Club, which, along with Rotary District 6970 and the Beaches Rotaract Club, helped raise much of the roughly $ 95,000 needed to complete the work.
“As part of Rotary’s goals, providing clean water is just below polio prevention,” Takacs said. “It’s hard to measure the lives saved, but we can easily say that all lives are improved by having clean water readily available.”
The need at La Esperanza was clear.
The community’s water source was a high altitude mountain spring, but its production had declined so much over the past 20 years that it was no longer reliable. Residents captured water in jugs at local taps, which only lasted an hour a day during the dry season, or walked to a lower spring and hauled water to the nearest road.
“A villager who was waiting with a van was picking up the containers and driving them up the winding mountain road. The women would meet him at the top of the path and collect their water, carrying it to their homes, ”Takacs said.
The limited water has led to skin infections, dehydration, and other illnesses.
But designing a water supply for the village was a challenge for engineering students more familiar with flat Florida than an area with mountains and high seismic activity. Plus, with three languages involved – English, Spanish, and Kaqchikuel Mayan – they had to overcome communication barriers.
In addition, the design had to be inexpensive and low-maintenance, durable for population growth, and built with locally available materials and equipment. And there was the issue of chlorination, which is a common method of purifying water in developing countries.
The people of La Esperanza had the “Mayan belief that water is sacred and view chlorine as a contaminant rather than a disinfectant,” according to the team’s report. After careful study, they decided to use solar water disinfection, along with a back-up chlorination system in the event of an infectious epidemic.
The project includes a pumping system designed by Wisconsin Water for the World that delivers water 2,600 feet horizontally from the source – through an elevation change of 500 feet – to the student distribution system. Their system consisted of two 10,000 liter tanks and four gravity distribution lines connected to each home and school.
The residents, once they understood the system, were happy.
“Within 24 hours, they adjusted,” Takacs said.
The team was not present during construction, but later visited for technical inspections. At that time, water was flowing in every house and the water pressure readings were satisfactory. They said the project was “a huge success”.
OPENING THE WAY
“Using my education to help people is a very satisfying feeling,” said Kovalenko, 21. “I decided to pursue civil engineering because I want to benefit humanity. Being able to do so with this project is gratifying because I have seen my aspirations turn into a reality.”
She was also proud to be part of a project featuring women working in so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – which have always been owned by men.
“Women in STEM need to be promoted. As a woman in engineering, I have seen a difference in the way women are treated compared to men in academia and work,” Kovalenko said. “I sometimes feel like a kind of pioneer.”
Each of the team members has career plans that will serve as an example for other female engineering hopefuls.
Kovalenko will work in environmental engineering in Portland, Oregon, Slack as a dredge engineer in California. Austin, 22, and Pinto, 23, will work for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville.
And Broussard said she intends to start a non-profit organization aboard a tall ship schooner in the South Pacific, where she will work on water solutions and raise awareness about climate change and its impact on coastal communities.
“These young women are… passionate about their efforts to save the world,” said Brown, their teacher. “I know they will continue to change the world for the better.”
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109