For the third time in four years, a group of Rowan engineering students have travelled to El Salvador to help provide a permanent, reliable source of clean drinking water to a small farming village.
The students, members of the Rowan chapter of Engineers Without Borders, seek to provide technical advice to residents of La Cieba and help them build a series of household water purification units.
The units, cast of concrete and filled with gravel and sand, would work sort of like the Brita or Pur filters common in American households, filtering toxins and harmful bacteria from river water so residents can safely drink it.
Known as bio-sand filters, the units would be constructed of locally available materials and, used properly, could effectively treat water for years.
Junior mechanical engineering major Jessica Tryner said the half dozen students and their advisor who went to La Ceiba March 14 to 20 tested water, surveyed land and laid plans to begin constructing the bio-sand filters.
"What we found was high levels of fecal coliform in all of the river samples and most of the wells," said Tryner, 20, of Glassboro. "The U.S. drinking water standards say if there is any fecal coliform it is too high for drinking."
She said a picturesque river running through the community is used not only for drinking water but bathing and clothes washing but is also polluted from animal waste and decay.
In previous trips to La Ceiba, a village of about 500 on the western side of El Salvador, Rowan EWB members considered digging deeper wells but limited community resources forced them to consider alternatives such as the bio-sand filters and, eventually, a larger, swimming-pool sized unit of similar design called a slow-sand filter.
Tryner, who served as project manager for the trip, said despite the seemingly simple design of the sand filters, they are remarkably effective. Once built, water will pass through the sand and gravel and organisms in the water will actually help form a filter.
"There are several different types of organisms in the water that form a colony and they'll eat the harmful bacteria in the new water," she said.
Tryner said Rowan students are submitting plans to international Engineers Without Borders administrators and, pending approval, will return to La Ceiba in January to begin building the first bio-sand filters.
Advisor Paul La Pierre, a Rowan adjunct professor and engineer with Land Dimensions, a Glassboro engineering firm, said the trip did more than help people satisfy the most basic of needs.
"This was a great learning experience from a project management point of view," he said. "These students are following through with concepts and design solutions and that will apply to any type of project. Whether it's an infrastructure project like we were looking at or something else, preplanning and finding material and labor to get it done, it's all related."
Engineering Professor Jess Everett, who accompanied students to La Ceiba in 2007 and 2008 but did not go this year because he'd recently returned from an EWB trip to Africa, said the humanitarian work is directly tied to classroom studies.
In particular, he said, the multi-disciplinary clinics students take, a hallmark of the Rowan engineering program, help prepare them for work abroad as well as for careers in the field.
"In this case the client would be EWB International but it would also be the community we're serving," Dr. Everett said.
In addition to the bio-sand and slow sand filters, students are considering a riverside structure called an infiltration gallery that could clean yet greater quantities water, he said.
Ultimately, he said, the point is to make a difference in people's lives and built real world experience.
"We look for projects we think we can handle," Professor Everett said. "This type of experience will help them as engineers because they see all the things that have to happen before you build something. They also see the direct relationship between engineering and people's health."