EWB goes beyond ‘just building something’

February 9, 2023

EWB team members adjust a pipe for the chlorination system.
During an Engineers Without Borders trip to Don Juan, Dominican Republic, Andrew Rojnuckarin, Hannah Rickert, and Bridgit Nguyen stabilize the foot valve tube that goes inside a chlorination tank to improve the flow of pure chlorine for a water purification system the team has installed for the elementary school.

Students return to Dominican Republic for the first time since the pandemic

Members of the Engineers Without Borders student chapter at the University of Rochester returned to Don Juan, Dominican Republic in January for the first time since before the pandemic to make adjustments to a water purification system the group installed on prior trips for an elementary school.

They were able fix the rate of chlorination for the water system for the Escuela Taller Santa Maria Josefa Rossello school, which had a new chlorination pump installed last summer.

“We were also able perform a few structural repairs such as applying new Teflon tape to pressure gauges to decrease leaking and pulling the tube from the chlorinator further out of the underground pipe that feeds into the cistern. That way it will be easier to monitor when the chlorine exits the tube,” says EWB president Hannah Rickert '25 GEAR '26 of biomedical engineering.

“All of these adjustments resulted in decreased bacteria levels and safe chlorine levels. The children at the school are now able to use the water for brushing their teeth, which was their primary use before concerns involving the new pump developed.”

Other team members included Andrew Rojnuckarin ’23 of chemical engineering and Katie Lambright ’26, Rosemary MacLean ’23, Bridgit Nguyen ’26, and Hong Zhang ’25, all of biomedical engineering.

Though the project, first begun in 2014, is nearing completion, the students will need to continue to monitor it, since the chlorination pump was installed by staff at the school just last summer. 

"We intend to take at least one more trip to the community of Don Juan for this project, and we are hoping to start a new project in the surrounding communities. We held a meeting where we learned about what community members were concerned about and learned more about surrounding villages and their issues with access to water,” Rickert says.

Community members also mentioned an interest in having a community center for the children to do activities and sports while their parents are returning from work.

During the trip, the students stayed with two of their primary contacts in Don Juan, Father Ron Gaesser and Sister Maria Poleza.

Lots of preparation, big rewards

 Dwight Harrienger with the student team

Because no trips could be made during the pandemic, none of the current EWB members had experience in planning or participating in a trip to Don Juan. They relied on their advising engineer Dwight Harrienger, at left above, who has been advising the project for the last eight years or so. “We truly do not know where we would be without him,” Rickert says. Also in the photo, left to right: Katie Lambright, Andrew Rojnuckarin, Rosemary MacLean, Hannah Rickert, Bridgit Nguyen, and Hong Zhang.

“Something that isn’t very well known about Engineers Without Borders is that we’re really doing hands-on engineering only about 10 percent of our project,” Rickert says. “Most of our time is spent researching testing methods, infrastructure implementation, and all of the behind the scenes planning details.”

For this trip, those details included “researching all of the restrictions and hoops we would have to go through, all of the flight information, housing costs, timelines, and learning the entire chlorination system that we had in place like the back of my hand so I could teach it to the others,” Rickert says.

But the preparation paid off, she adds.

“The goal of an engineer goes beyond just building something,” Rickert says. “Being able to take these trips and see how what we design and monitor can impact a community firsthand is a gratifying experience that really shows how engineers can truly make a difference, not just in designing something that works, but by providing access to needs like clean water.”

 Hannah Rickert with children.

Hannah Rickert talking with two young girls in Don Juan, one of many interactions the EWB members had with the children in the town. On another occasion, when Rickert showed children a picture of snow from her home in Maine, “they were very intrigued, asking if it was always cold in the US and if we get the same weather that they do.”