About three years ago, a group of students in the College of Engineering and Science came together to offer their skills for a better world. What resulted is a Creative Inquiry (CI) project with Engineers for Developing Countries (EDC) to better the lives of people living in Cange, Haiti. The project draws on the expertise of the Clemson community, alumni, faculty and the students themselves.
The group started as a way for students to apply the skills they’ve learned to real-world needs, and it’s become a mission to rebuild a water system that will eliminate a daily two-mile walk with an 800-foot vertical climb just to obtain water.
Clemson’s EDC team has since grown to 28 members, and trips now occur every semester. Erika Houghtaling was part of the group that ventured down during the summer of 2010. She says that the frequency of the trips has risen as more students join the project. According to Ph.D. student Murray Fisher, increased funding has also contributed to the frequency of the visits. “This additional money allows us to expose more students to the life-changing experience that a trip to Haiti can bring,” he says.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Employers are watching. According to Lance Bell, a civil engineering professor and the group’s adviser, this CI project helps the students differentiate themselves from other job applicants by adding community service and real-world experience to their résumés. “The project is entirely student-driven,” he says. “Faculty are available to assist as needed, but it’s primarily run by the students. In some cases, employers value this type of experience with teamwork, initiative and networking more than a GPA.”
The EDC group has relied greatly on the help of the Clemson Family to make their project successful. Group members who have graduated have served as liaisons to experienced consultants and much needed funds from companies like Duke Energy and Fluor Corp. The Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina has also responded to the need by helping to raise funds for supplies and service trips.
According to Houghtaling, “Last semester we hosted a 5K run/walk to raise funds and awareness of the project. We’ve also written some grant proposals for area companies that we’re still waiting to hear about.”
Ongoing funding is imperative for the long-term success of the project. Houghtaling traveled to Cange after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and she reports the population has risen significantly since the project began. Because of that, it’s more important than ever that the residents have easy access to clean water. “The Partners in Health Hospital is located in Cange,” she explains, “so many people have traveled there to seek help. Many were forced to stay because they couldn’t afford transportation back home or they had nothing to go back to. Many don’t have plans to return to Port-au-Prince any time soon.”
Thankfully, as challenges continue to arise, Fisher says that more groups have joined the effort. “An EDC team from the University of Maryland is lending a hand by spearheading projects for waste management and building a biodigester. The water currently isn’t treated, and recent water quality assessments taken during the spring 2011 trip indicate fecal bacteria contamination.”
Clemson students in Haiti on water project.
Clemson students in Haiti working on water project.
Clemson students in Haiti working on water project meet woman.
Clemson students in CBBS Tiger TiesClemson students in Haiti working on water project.
Clemson’s EDC group leader, Jeff Plumblee, was able to collect essential background information and equipment requirements/constraints before visiting Cange. It was determined that traditional surveying equipment such as a total station, tripod and prism pole could be held in customs for some time or even confiscated. As a result, the students had to use some ingenuity in completing their surveys. They decided that a hand level and a dimensioned length of PVC pipe could be used to calculate elevations and approximate distances. Plumblee also acquired surveys previously completed in the area that the students could use as a reference.
Group leader and founder Jeff Plumblee is a Ph.D. student in the civil engineering department. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently recognized him for his work in Haiti with a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship consisting of three years of annual support and TeraGrid Supercomputer access.
In the beginning, Plumblee and the team encountered many obstacles; one entailed not being able to use the latest technology to help accurately conduct research. As a result, the team gained experience with using ingenuity and old techniques to overcome their problems.
Despite occasional impediments, the students have completed much of the work and are training the residents to use and maintain the water system. Many residents participated in the construction, creating jobs in the area as well as local experts to repair the system as problems arise. The student EDC group is writing easy-to-follow manuals and has placed an intern in Cange to work with the residents and manage the project on an ongoing basis. Houghtaling says, “Recently, a man who is from Haiti, but educated in America, has agreed to work with the residents. I think they really appreciate having us there, but it means even more to them to have someone from Haiti — who speaks their language fluently — to help them out.”
As the water system project in Cange flows closer to completion, the CI group is looking for ways to help people somewhere else in the world. Fisher says, “Several teams were formed to market our skills to possible partner organizations and develop a decision process for selecting future projects that fit the team’s expertise.”
Wherever the group decides to go next, there will be one more village that can live better because of the skills and ingenuity of Clemson students. For more information about EDC, visit people.clemson.edu/~cedc/
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