Students hone engineering, teamwork skills by tackling real-world projects

The Engineers Without Borders-Yale team helps local officials in Naitolia, Tanzania survey the top of existing embankment dam.
The Engineers Without Borders-Yale team helps local officials in Naitolia, Tanzania survey the top of existing embankment dam. Left to right: Erasto, Tula Ngasala, Ndesa, a Naitolia official, Annabelle Pan, and Patrick Hong.

Yale University continuously leverages the power of partnerships and global networks to solve problems around the world. The work of the Yale chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-Yale) is a perfect example of how such an approach can create and foster a shared future with the global community, according to Dave Sacco ’81, a civil engineer who has served as EWB-Yale’s professional mentor since the club formed more than 15 years ago.

EWB participants enjoy a unique experience by applying theoretical constructs they learn in the classroom to actual, real-world practices and hands-on experiences in solving problems,” said Sacco. “Engineering is a place where science encounters physical challenges and people’s needs, and that’s what students discover by participating in an EWB project. They learn firsthand not only the value of close partnership in working with others to tackle a problem but in the process are exposed to the technical, financial, cultural, and social aspects of engineering. It’s a deep, real-world experience.”

Durga Thakral ’12, a former EWB-Yale member, agrees with Sacco, citing her time working for the organization as the most life-changing experience of her undergraduate education. 

The camaraderie built among participants with the common goals of putting book-learning principles into practice in the real world, making a sustainable impact, and, above all, doing good for humanity is truly amazing and was an unforgettable experience for me,” said Thakral. “Participation in the program also creates a closely connected community among all past, present, and future EWB-Yale members.”

A registered undergraduate organization, EWB-Yale is one of about 300 university and professional chapters that comprise Engineers Without Borders USA, a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide to improve their quality of life. Work by EWB organizations involves the implementation of sustainable engineering projects while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students. 

Annabelle Pan and Dave Sacco test soil compaction.
Annabelle Pan and Dave Sacco test soil compaction.

Work conducted by EWB-Yale is funded by private donations, grants from corporate and NGO partners, and in-kind contributions from the communities in which Yale-EWB teams work. The organization originally began in 2003 by a group of undergraduates with the support of Bill Mitch, then an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale. It is comprised of numerous students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds, as well a professional mentor and a Yale faculty adviser. Since its establishment, EWB-Yale has engaged in close partnership with local communities, NGOs, university students, and other stakeholder groups to build the infrastructure necessary to create, repair, or expand clean, reliable water supplies in four different communities. It tackled its very first project in 2005-2006 in Honduras. where the group repaired an existing water system for the town of El Rosario. In 2007 the organization started working in Africa, spearheading an award-winning project in northwest Cameroon to create a water distribution system in the village of Kikoo, and later a similar distribution system in the neighboring village of Rohvitangitaa.  

The intimate trust we’ve built with the community and the communication with local leaders arising from it allows us to execute a truly sustainable and effective project tailored to our partners’ actual needs, rather than just our preconceptions,” said Katrina White ’20, former EWB-Yale co-president and a contributing member of the organization since 2016.

The Yale chapter of Engineers Without Borders was one of the first groups I joined when I got to campus, and it was a defining part of my Yale experience,” said Glen Meyerowitz ’14. “Beyond the technical skills I learned through practice and application of theory, the greatest impact it had on my Yale education was learning to work as a team to collaborate and develop solutions to problems that impact real lives. From mentors and other students, I learned the critical importance of partnership and working with others as equals.”

Another program alumni, Katherine Rostkowski ’07 agrees with White, adding, “EWB-Yale allowed me to see and better understand how what I was learning in the classroom could be applied in the real world for meaningful impact. The valuable experiences I gained as an undergrad contributing to EWB-Yale projects shaped my trajectory to pursuing a career in international development.”

According to Jordan Peccia, the Thomas E. Golden Jr. professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and faculty adviser for EWB-Yale, the organization always takes an extremely collaborative approach when engaging in projects. Before project work even begins the organization reaches out to host country universities to generate interest and recruit local undergraduate students to its projects, where they work alongside Yale students.

The overall EWB experience enables students from different backgrounds and cultures to forge long-lasting friendships and connections,” said Peccia. “Yale students and students from host country universities gain valuable experience on the practical, construction side of engineering. But also learn something so much more valuable and rare: how to interact and work with different cultures on an engineering project. They get a first-hand look at the human and social implications of their engineering designs.”

Annabelle Pan ’20, recent student co-president of EWB-Yale, said she believes maintaining a close relationship with the local community even after the project is completed to be vitally important.

Surveying the slope of the watershed. Left to right: Madison (Maddy) Shankle (Yale Undergrad), Annabelle Pan, Ndesa.
Surveying the slope of the watershed. Left to right: Madison (Maddy) Shankle (Yale Undergrad), Annabelle Pan, Ndesa.

Often people join EWB expecting to practice applying their engineering background, their structural dynamics or fluid mechanics, to the real world. And that does constitute a portion of what we do. But Yale-EWB is so much more than engineering –– we are focused on thorough and thoughtful communication with the community at every step of the project,” said Pan. “For example, while we have now finished the bulk of construction for the Naitolia project, to ensure our work is sustainable and effectively meets the community’s expectations and needs, we will continue regular correspondence and visits there for the next two years.”

The Naitolia project Pan references is the most recent project taken on by EWB-Yale that entails restoration of water infrastructure for the community of Naitolia in the Arusha region of Tanzania. In 1982 the citizens of Naitolia built a small embankment dam to capture seasonal rainfall that is stored for livestock use during the dry season.  Unfortunately, in recent years, erosion severely damaged the embankment eventually causing a breach that rendered the pond unusable. Beginning in 2017 EWB-Yale has led a project to assess, restore, and strengthen the pond as a water source. 

In taking on the project, EWB-Yale is collaborating with numerous partners including the following:

  • Village of Naitolia Water Management Committee
  • NGO: Water, Environment, Energy, and Sanitation (WEES) consultant firm
  • Tanzania Partnership Program (TPP), a long-term collaborative alliance of local and international organizations dedicated to improving local livelihoods led by Michigan State University, implemented in and with Tanzanian communities and university partners
  • The water department of the Monduli District Government
  • Ardhi University

When I was working on the EWB proposal on behalf of the Naitolia village, it seemed impossible that our project could be picked up so quickly given how big it was, and so I was very excited when Yale-EWB stepped forward to start working with us,” said Dr. Tula Ngasala, a Ph.D. candidate in Michigan State University’s civil and environmental engineering program. “It’s hard to believe the collaboration has advanced so quickly, and that it’s already nearly complete.”

Looking at GPS images of the pond watershed.
Looking at GPS images of the pond watershed. Left to right: Mr. Shafuri (Mondouli District), Tula Ngasala (TPP), Naitolia officials, and Dave Sacco.

In taking on projects, EWB-Yale makes a minimum five-year commitment. The group started the Naitolia project in 2017 and are committed to working with the community through 2022. To date, the pond is mostly constructed and is expected to fill during the fall and upcoming spring rainy seasons. This year the EWB-Yale team will assess how the pond is operating, continue excavating to expand the storage capacity and begin to assess the community’s well-fed water supply to identify ways to improve its output, reach, and reliability.  The chapter will periodically conduct community meetings and household surveys within Naitolia to ensure that construction of the pond is providing appropriate health, educational, and economic benefits.   Outreach and education efforts will focus on encouraging increased use of higher quality water supplies for human consumption while the pond provided an expanded water supply for livestock use.  

Yale undergraduate or graduate students interested in joining EWB-Yale (note: being an engineering student is not required) can visit the organization’s website, or contact Dave Sacco at dsacco@tpadesigngroup.com or Jordan Peccia at Jordan.peccia@yale.edu.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale and Africa: Empowering through partnership

Media Contact

Adam Gaber: adam.gaber@yale.edu, 203-436-5449