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Engineering Stronger Communities

Engineers Without Borders student group headed to El Salvador.

Jessica Bies, Mankato Free Press, 5-10-2015

They wanted to do more than design hypothetical bridges or compete to build the strongest beam.

They wanted to engineer a stronger community instead.

Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Engineers Without Borders group hopes to take what they’re learning in class and apply it to the real world, investing in a project that would have a long-lasting impact not only on themselves but those in need.

“We wanted to pick a project that could truly help people,” said the student group’s president, Sam Stoffels.

That’s what they’ll be doing this week when seven members of the group travel to Santa Rosa Senca, a small village in western El Salvador, to assess its faulty water system, he said.

Burst pipes and spraying water disrupt life there on an almost weekly basis. Its more than 1,200 residents do not have consistent access to potable drinking water, Stoffels said.

The small farming community spends several hours a week hauling water from nearby streams back to the village in plastic jugs. Not only is the liquid untreated, but the activity itself is costing the community precious time. “The impact of what we’re doing there could allow women to go back to work and children back to school,” said project lead Michael Seffren. “Right now, they have to go get water.”

The village itself has the resources it needs to improve its water system, said Jordan Zumberge, but lacks the know-how. El Salvador has electricity, Internet, phone access and more, but few engineers.

That’s where Engineers Without Borders steps in. Because of work done by the group in 2012, the students know roughly what they’re up against.

The village draws water from an underground aquifer, using a pump to pipe it into a large hilltop tank where they can treat it with chlorine. Gravity does the rest, sending the water down through pipes and into the village itself.

“But their system currently has pressure issues,” Stoffels said.

“The pipes basically break due to improper design. When the pipes break, they have to turn the water off. When they have to turn the water off, they have no water.

They have to go collect it.”

The system has been expanded since 2012, which means the students will have to remap it on their trip this May.

Once they do that, they can make recommendations for how the village can relieve the pressure and slow the water down enough that the pipes no longer break. One solution could be building break tanks.

Located downhill from the main one, they’d collect the water on its way down to the village and depressurize it. It’s a relatively cost-effective solution and hopefully within the village’s capabilities to construct.

“Simplicity over complexity is what they need in developing countries,” Stoffels said.

The students, many of whom are sophomores or juniors, hope to get the village’s water problems fixed before they graduate. They have elected junior presidents, so the group can become more sustainable and outlast its current membership. The group itself is a chapter of the national Engineers Without Borders nonprofit, which supports community-driven development programs worldwide. Chris Cavett, with the SEH engineering firm’s Mankato office, has been serving as the group’s mentor. Jeff Peltola, who owns the Twin Citiesbased nonprofit Public Works for Public Good, will travel with the team to El Salvador.

The goal is to find another community to partner with once the project in Santa Rosa is done and to continue providing rural El Salvador with reliable sources of drinking water.

“We take it for granted,” Seffren said. “Twenty-four hours a day we can just turn on the tap.”

“Heck, we even have fountains,” Zumberge said, glancing over his shoulder at the water erupting from the ground behind him.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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