Making the World a Better Place
Cal Poly's branch of Engineers Without Borders, launched in 2005, has become one of the largest student branches in the country.
Historically, engineers have often been portrayed as tough, hard hat-wearing men building bridges and controlling nature, said Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA).
“That kind of nonsense doesn’t attract too many women,” he said.
But once it was shown that engineering could help communities in need, Amadei said, more women became interested. So while women only make up 18 percent of engineers in the United States, according to a Congressional Joint Economic Committee report, they comprise half of EWB.
Amadei thinks the difference relates to how engineering is portrayed by Engineers Without Borders- USA.
“It presented itself as more compassionate and more caring,” Amadei said. “I think for women that’s more important.”
Amadei will offer a public talk, “Global Engineering for a Small Planet,” Friday April 19, at the ATL (Building 007), beginning at 11 a.m. The discussion is part of the College of Engineering's Diversity and Inclusion Speaker series.
Nearly 20 years after he founded the organization, the popularity of EWB has exploded, with roughly 17,000 members, working on more than 700 projects in 48 countries. While EMB students are working to make the world a better place, for many years Amadei viewed engineering in a more traditional way – that men-making-bridges notion -- until one person changed his view.
“I keep saying an Angel knocked on my door and changed my life,” he said.
As in Angel Tzec, who did some landscaping work for Amadei in 1997.
At the time, the year 2000, Amadei was a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. While he had volunteered at a local homeless shelter and a children’s hospital, he had never considered incorporating his engineer training into volunteerism. But that would change after Tzec – who became a representative for Belize’s Department of Agriculture -- invited him to his hometown in Central America, initially to help develop the curriculum for a vocational school for Mayan youths.
Amadei agreed to go to San Pablo in 2000. San Pablo was a small village of 150 inhabitants, which had no electricity, running water or sanitation. And while there, he saw
Bernard Amadie, founder of EWB-USA
school-aged girls carrying water from a river to their village.
Amadei thought they should have been going to school instead.
“I looked at it as a challenge and maybe I could do something,” he said. “Here was a unique opportunity to combine engineering with volunteerism.”
While the community had the natural resources and motivation to build a reliable water supply system, it lacked the technical skills and economic capacity to design one. So Amadei returned to Colorado, where he discussed potential solutions with colleagues. After students helped raise $12,000 for the project, Amadei returned to Belize – this time with a cadre of 12 students and a colleague – and installed a clean water system powered by a waterfall a quarter of a mile from the community. The system failed twice and a third option was installed by another chapter of EWB.
With that project, students drove him to do even more, he said.
“I said, ‘If that’s what they want, let’s do it.’”
EWB-USA was founded with the idea that engineers could use their skills to help communities in developing countries. While there was initially resistance at his university, the non-profit expanded considerably.
Cal Poly’s chapter formed in 2005 and has since grown to become one of the largest student chapters in the country. Today, the Cal Poly chapter features five project teams – in Fiji, Malawi, Nicaragua, Thailand and locally.
Over time, it was clear that EWB offered not just a benefit to developing countries but also to the students who participated, Amadei said. The experience, after all, required students to work in teams, often next to professional engineers, coming up with solutions to complex problems. In short, EWB provided excellent career training.
“Companies are interested in hiring these young people right away because of the skills they have acquired outside the classroom,” Amadei said.
While the Peace Corps has been providing assistance to underdeveloped countries since 1961, Amadei said engineers are in a unique position to change the world for the better.
“We take basic science and apply it to problems faced by communities worldwide,” he said.