PULLMAN, Wash. — A student group at Washington State University is partnering with villagers in a remote area of Panama to help them gain access to information about clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

The WSU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which is a nonprofit that supports community-driven development projects around the world, is proposing construction of a multipurpose community outreach center for a predominantly indigenous population in Panama. The center will cater to the community by providing valuable information about creating clean water supply systems, and best practices in maintaining sanitation and hygiene.

The group is hosting a Winter Community Festival at Pullman’s Lumberyard Food Hall on December 3rd from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., which will include live music, carnival games, food, and drinks. The food court will donate $2 from every drink sold during the event to Engineers Without Borders.

The club created a solar-powered water pumping system last year for the village of Nueva Esperanza in Panama, which lacked access to a reliable water source for part of the year.

“The solar powered water pump system was a great step in the right direction, but our goal at Engineers Without Borders is to empower communities we work with to create long-term solutions and take ownership,” said Kevin Allan, project lead and senior in civil engineering.

After several trips to the area, the group realized that while a water pumping system can help a few hundred residents of the village, they needed a more scalable solution for serving larger populations like the 150,000 plus indigenous people living in the province of Ngäbe-Buglé, where Nueva Esperanza is located.

“We envision the Community Outreach Center as a place where people can come for classes and workshops about water, sanitation and hygiene principles and basic engineering skills that will help them improve their own communities,” said Kristy Watson, president of the student chapter at WSU, who is also majoring in civil engineering.

The center, which will be located in the capital of the Ngäbe-Buglé region, will also provide a space for local nonprofits and volunteers, with office spaces, classrooms and workshop areas, along with dorm-style living facilities for visiting groups.

In addition to showcasing a variety of methods and systems for water supply in communities lacking access to clean water, the center will also host a training facility where residents of the region can learn about ecologically-sustainable agriculture products like shade-grown coffee.

“Ultimately we want the residents to take ownership of this facility and mold it to be a space that reflects what they want and need the most,” Allan said.

The WSU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders stands behind a solar-powered water pump in Panama.
The EWB club created a solar-powered water pumping system last year for the village of Nueva Esperanza in Panama, which lacked access to a reliable water source for part of the year.

The chapter’s involvement with Nueva Esperanza and the surrounding area began when Destry Seiler, an alumnus of the WSU civil engineering program who was stationed to the village while serving in the Peace Corps in 2016.

“I saw how big of a problem the lack of access to water nearby was,” Seiler said. “Villagers had to climb down a small hill to collect water from a spring source and bring it back up the hill. This also meant that gravity-powered pumping systems wouldn’t work.”

With the help of Karl Olsen, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at WSU, Seiler put together a group of interested students who visited Panama and designed a solar-powered pumping system for the village.

That past engagement with the region will be solidified further with the building of the community center, according to Seiler, who spent last summer helping install groundwater systems in Ghana in West Africa.

“The goal is to create an infrastructure that can be taken over by the locals to address their pressing concerns, from water access to sanitation to disease prevention,” she said.

Later this year, students from the group will be flying to Panama to do a site assessment and map the land for the center.

“We have students from a variety of majors like civil engineering, mechanical engineering and even political science working on this project,” Watson said.

The project’s electrical, site development, water and structural teams get together weekly to discuss updates. Apart from using computer-aided design and modeling tools, the team has hands-on sessions where they use Lego blocks to simulate the design and play with ideas.

The students will learn the local building codes, according to Allan, and perform initial calculations and drawings for the structure and site design. Once they have a safe design that is approved by professional engineers, they will do the bulk of the construction themselves.

“While we are engineers, a large part of what we do is working with communities, fundraising, figuring out the logistics and creating a holistic and sustainable vision,” Allan said.

The team is currently fundraising to support the construction of the center. They have already had student mixers at the Lumberyard food hall in Pullman, a bake sale and a shoe drive to raise money.

If they are able to raise the needed funds, they plan to begin construction next summer.

Donations to the group can be made at their fundraising web page.

Media Contact:

Karl Olsen, clinical associate professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, kolsen@wsu.edu