'Have you been to the river?'
Project teaches technical, social lessons
In January, six Bucknell engineers traveled to South America, aiming for a first-hand perspective on their plans to provide clean water to a village in Suriname. The engineers - four students and two faculty members - returned with a renewed belief in a basic design principle: First, listen to the users.
Invited by Peace Corps volunteer Laura Roberts, a 2007 Bucknell mechanical engineering graduate, the team spent the fall semester collaborating with her to develop a technical water-purification design. After a week of surveying and meeting with the villagers, though, the team understood that the design must also be responsive to social issues, including the role of clean water in the culture of Tumaipa locals.
"This is much more complicated than simply finding a water source and figuring out how to clean it and bring it to the people," said John Trimmer, a civil engineering senior.
The team discovered that a running water system designed to bring water to communal sinks throughout the village might take away a valuable ritual, since some villagers go to the river twice a day to wash and interact. The team finally suggested a low-tech solution: collect rainwater and filter the river water.
Roberts wasn't the only person seeking assistance. Representatives from UNICEF have asked the Bucknell team to help determine if the team's proposed Durotank solution might be a better, more sustainable approach than a solar-powered water supply and treatment system devised for another village.
"There's a chance for this team not only to design and meet Tumaipa's needs but to do some groundwork that helps all the interior Suriname villages," says Mike Toole, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering who was part of the team that visited Suriname.