Rowan’s Engineering Innovators Without Borders brings advances to developing countries

Rowan’s Engineering Innovators Without Borders brings advances to developing countries


A handful of Rowan University students will travel about as far south as possible in North America this month. Like many of their peers, they will be armed with sunscreen. Unlike most of them, they will haul a percussion drill and accompanying paraphernalia on a decidedly non-hedonistic spring break 2014.

The students are part of Rowan’s own Engineering Innovators Without Borders. The group, founded in 2009 by Dr. Beena Sukumaran, chair of Rowan’s Civil & Environmental Engineering program, is a riff on the internationally known Engineers Without BordersTM.

Engineering Innovators members endeavor to conceive, create and test products that may make life easier and safer in places like Central America, Asia and Africa.

Once they do, they plan to give the rights to those product designs away so that those in developing countries — whether individuals, villages or non-governmental organizations — can build their version of the Rowan design and better gather food, work the land and/or earn an income.

An Engineering Innovators team of four will travel seven to 10 hours by bus and a half hour by ferry from Panama City to reach the community of Isla Bastimentos, where they will work for the better part of break, March 15 to 23.

They will team up with Rowan civil engineering graduate Caitlin Terry and her colleagues from Hydromissions International to conduct further legwork on the versatile percussion drill they have designed for drilling in various soil types to create boreholes necessary for the construction of water wells.

The team comprises:

  • Patrick Downey, 20, a junior civil and environmental engineering major from Ewing, N.J.
  • Jessica Guglielmo, a 20, a junior civil and environmental engineering major from Hewitt, N.J.
  • Eric Seckinger, 20, a junior civil and environmental engineering major from Somers Point, N.J.
  • Brittany Smith, 21, a senior civil and environmental engineering major from Gibbsboro, N.J.

The students and their collaborators will test the drill, which is operated via a rope-and-pulley system.  The force of gravity can propel the drill — the steel device is 21 inches tall with a five-inch circumference, and it weighs 35 pounds — 30 to 45 feet into the ground. They hope to refine their design so that it can be constructed by communities to tap into sources of water.

Two of Rowan’s hallmark engineering clinics have been devoted to the initiative, now in its second year. “We completely revamped the drill. We inherited a different drill. It was a lot bigger and a lot heavier,” said Smith, the project lead. She said her team designed a sleeker frame so the drill will be more efficient.

They will survey the village while they are there and test their prototype, dealing with a complex soil that includes rock and clay.

“It’s going to be a very tedious process,” said Smith. The team will hand off its findings to the next clinic on the project. “Our object is to create a reproducible drill that is made of low-cost and readily available materials in underserved countries.”

The team will stay in a home in the village, which also will supply them with three meals a day. They’ve received typhoid and hepatitis shots, and they’ve got malaria pills to pack. They’ll also be packing two pairs of slacks, five shirts and sneakers, as well as a gift for their hosts.

For all of the Rowan students, putting their engineering skills into practice is a big draw of Engineering Innovators. Even more so is making a difference.

Guglielmo said, “I’ve been interested in traveling and going to help people.”

Added Seckinger, “Assuming success, we’re very happy to be able to provide some people with clean water who otherwise would not be able to drink clean water.”

At present, the villages that the students will be visiting in Isla Bastimentos obtain their water from rainwater catchment storage units, which can be seasonal.  Access to well water would provide them with a more permanent source of water during the year.

Downey said the team will determine what does and doesn’t work for the next clinic team assigned the project, and hopefully that team can increase production of the drill to disseminate to charitable organizations.

Sukumaran informally started Engineering Innovators in 2009, but her work on related efforts dates back a few years earlier.  She and several teams of students worked for a couple of years to craft pedal-powered and hand-powered grain crushers that could be used by villagers to help them process food and possibly earn money. The professor and another team of students also designed a new type of tree-climber, a device that coconut harvesters can use to more safely scale heights to obtain food. Rowan engineering professors Drs. Jess Everett and Hong Zhang worked with students on a device to compress peanut shells into briquettes that can be used for cooking fuel. Everett and Dr. Jennifer Kadlowec worked with students to develop an improved rope-operated water pump.

The funding for the soil drill was provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The students will participate in the EPA-P3 competition (People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability) in Washington, D.C., from April 25 to 27, where the results of their work in Panama also will be discussed.