Engineers Without Borders’ Bolivia project adjusts to remote work

Engineers Without Borders’ Bolivia project adjusts to remote work

Photo Credits: Engineers Without Borders at UC Davis / Courtesy. A group photo of the Engineers Without Borders at UC Davis team from 2019.

How the team plans to continue their construction from a distance

The coronavirus pandemic has forced much of our lives to be reimagined digitally, and in addition to classes, meetings and clubs, the members of UC Davis’ Engineers Without Borders’ Bolivia project have had to find a way to do construction from across the world. 

The Bolivia Project is a branch of UC Davis’ Engineers Without Borders, which is a non-profit student organization established to help developing areas worldwide with their engineering needs, while involving and training internationally responsible engineering students, according to their website. The project, which began in 2018, aims to improve sanitation in the Parque-Colani community in Bolivia by building sustainable latrines for households in the community. Katie Nelson, a fourth-year biotechnology student and the current co-lead of the project, explained the end goal for the Bolivia project.

“Our goal is to construct 18 latrines and repair six existing ones for the community members there,” Nelson said.

As is the structure of all Engineers Without Borders projects, the Bolivia team was planning to take five trips to the Parque-Colani community to see out this project. Their first trip, an assessment trip, took place in the summer of 2018. In the summer of 2019, they built their first sustainable latrine in the community center. 

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the team was gearing up for their third trip, set to take place over the summer. They’ve had to re-imagine this year’s trip. 

“We’re doing a remote implementation and we’ll be either one of, or the first team nationwide to hopefully complete a remote implementation,” Nelson said. 

Without the possibility of being in the community this year, the team had to come up with a new implementation strategy. Luckily, the team has a contact in the area, Poncho, who was their driver throughout last year’s trip and is going to be their construction manager during remote implementation. Nelson said that the challenge, then, is going to be getting the community members to do much of the heavy lifting that project members would have done if they were on the ground in Bolivia. 

“Basically, the community members are going to be the ones doing construction, [Poncho] is just going to be overseeing,” Nelson said. “He’ll be the one with the construction manual, knowing what to do, but in terms of actual building and collecting materials, [the community members will] be [working]. So it’s a challenge of how you get a group of people […] to come together. It’s a little tricky.”

The other new hurdle that the team will have to jump through while working remotely is how to make the usual split-second adjustments that are so common in these types of projects, from across the world. Kathryn Tarver, a fourth-year biological systems engineering major and the construction lead, explained that even with a firm plan, the implementation is far more reliant on Poncho and the community members to make these adjustments than if the team were on the ground. 

“We have a design, we have a budget, we have a timeline, all that jazz,” Tarver said. “Now can we get it so that it actually works out and be built effectively without us there?”

The team is going to start with just one latrine, and if building runs smoothly, they hope to build four or five more during this round of implementation.

Although the remote model of the project makes it more challenging in some ways, Nelson said that it has also made some aspects easier. 

“It was kind of nice because we have a lot of freedom,” Nelson said. “This has never really happened before, and even now, Engineers Without Borders nationals have a lot more say on the remote implementation. When we started this back in April, there was really no direction, so it was tricky at first. But once we realized [that] we have freedom and control to do what we want, we completely redesigned our whole team, we elected all different positions and got to completely redefine our team how we saw fit.”

Even though the remote strategy has been great in giving the team freedom and flexibility, Alyssa Estrada Marquez, a fourth-year civil engineering student and the co-project lead, explained that it does limit the real-life experience that students usually value in the Engineers Without Borders program.

“Students aren’t getting the hands-on experience that they usually have,” Estrada Marquez said. “Our team members will have to find other ways to learn how to pour concrete and learn what building the forms are for the concrete, because it just won’t happen this year.”

Tarver elaborated on this concern, mentioning that the knowledge that students gain about the specific communities, from the people there to the types of soil on the ground and materials that are available, is also imperative to the success of these projects, and much of it could be lost in the upcoming years.

“One of the challenges that we’ve encountered is that it’s probably going to be a couple of years until we are able to travel again which means that all of our seasoned travelers who have that institutional knowledge are going to be graduating out,” Tarver said. “It’s going to be a challenge just recording all of that institutional knowledge, and we’re trying to figure out how we are going to make sure that future generations of engineers are able to draw on what we already know.”

Despite all of these changes that COVID-19 has caused for the Bolivia project, according to Tarver, it has been an amazing experience to be able to spearhead this new project model, and has been a testament to the incredible things that can be accomplished remotely that they didn’t know were possible before.

“It’s kind of a perfect concept,” Tarver said. “We’re trying to demonstrate that you can implement a composting latrine remotely without any of our members being there.”

Estrada Marquez echoed Tarver’s statement.

“It’s been really fun,” Estrada Marquez said. “I think it’s cool to get to set the standards and get to make your own rules and define how you want to exactly run this project.”

Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org