Beyond textbooks

McGill students reflect upon what they learned during a week in Honduras working with community members to design a much-needed water system
The team takes a lunch break at the school during a field day.

In the beginning of May 2022, six McGill engineering students and one biochemistry student flew to Honduras for seven days to design a community-wide water system with Global Brigades, a non-profit organization that works with students around the world to empower communities to reduce inequalities.

Our goal over the short stay was to assist the local engineers in mapping, designing, and proposing a water system for the community of La Jagua in the municipality of Alauca, which aims to provide running water for 43 houses, two churches and one school in the community. Currently, people in La Jagua, a small village among the mountains, collect rainwater or water from two small wells, which requires a lot of labour and time from members of the households.

Designing a water system 

We started by mapping out the location of the homes and the water reservoir using a handheld GPS, to determine the amount of water piping necessary. We spent two days alongside the members of La Jagua’s Water Council who guided us within the community and helped us communicate with each family to determine where they desired their own faucet. We marked the pipeline’s trajectory at each 50 metres using a measuring tape and wooden stakes.

The GPS was used to record the coordinates and altitudes of each house, which were transferred into a software capable of calculating the pressure and velocity of the water required at each pipe to ensure a proper waterflow in the system. This information helped us determine the type and number of pipes needed, as well as the number of water breakers used to construct a budget breakdown that we presented to the Water Council and the mayor.

Grateful community

On our last day in Honduras, we presented to the Water Council, the mayor, and the community  a proposal of the designed system, the costs involved, the amount and types of labour needed, and the resources required from the community. This allowed them to make an educated decision about whether they wanted to embark on this long-term project or not.

When we arrived at the community for the last time, we were greeted by the kids of the local school with some songs and dances. The town’s priest guided everyone in prayer and gratitude, and the community sang the national anthem. The day ended with a lively discussion among the members of the community, Water Council, mayor, and the local engineer from Global Brigades.

Complementary experience

Overall, it was an experience that complemented our studies. “Not only did we learn technical engineering and project management skills including the steps required for a community to get access to appropriate piping, electricity for a pump, and determining the best locations for high-altitude reservoirs, we made meaningful connections with community members and better understood their situation, needs, and resourcefulness,” says Zoe Goldberger, a U4 Bioengineering student. “We were able to see that even after having a team of people researching the water situation in Honduras, what we had read in textbooks, papers, and the internet was not always true.”

It was “an eye-opening experience,” says Bernadette Ng, a U4 mechanical engineering student, “to witness the professional local engineers working with the Water Council, communicating with the mayor, and creating personal connections with the community. I was touched to see that the engineers emphasized the importance of this projects’ viability by making sure it can create long-term jobs, be maintainable by the community, and does not drain their local resources.”

Tackling humanitarian issues

This trip has also given us a deeper understanding of how we, as future engineers, can tackle humanitarian issues better. “I believe this experience has changed the way I think about humanitarian and social problems,” says Karim Mustafa, a U2 Bioengineering student. “I used to be unsure about how engineering would fit into these kinds of problems – in western developed countries, engineering often improves infrastructures and technologies for people that already have basic needs met. But this trip showed me how engineering can help alleviate the struggles faced by low-resource communities and help flatten the unbalanced distribution of resources in a country.”

“This trip has made me realize how crucial it is to integrate the citizens into each step of an engineering project,” says Tirza Ching Hei Pang, a U4 Chemical engineering student. “I realize now how a project can easily fail if any aspect is not suited to the recipients, and the only way to avert this predicament would be complete transparency and good communication.”

Learning about ourselves and others

Not only did we learn skills related to engineering, but we also learned more about ourselves, as Marc Amin, a U3 Bioengineering student stated: “I’ve learned the value of simplicity. As university students, we tend to complicate things in life, but while on this trip, I was able to see how to enjoy the simple things and not overdo it.”

“We did more than just calculate pipe diameter differences for optimum water pressure. We learned how to communicate with people who didn’t speak the same language as us. I realized that despite being thousands of kilometres apart and living in totally different conditions, people in essence are very similar,” says Tuna Gedik, a U2 Bioengineering student.

Creating personal commitments with community

We also realized some things that we tend to forget as students. “I have been reminded by the community’s way of life to appreciate what I have and the importance of community,” says Charlotte Keller, a U2 Biochemistry student. “I feel that this experience brought me closer to reality and reminded me of the importance of being present in the moment. We tend to rush, forget to be content with what we have, and not take enough of our time to be fully present with the people surrounding us. This is something I believe a lot of us students at McGill could learn.”

Of course, we acknowledge that it can be challenging for students to gain field experience due to the costs involved. We were lucky to have McGill’s impact200 Student Sustainability Challenge fund some parts of the travel costs. Nevertheless, our trip in Honduras taught us that to best help remedy a problem, it is incredibly important to first create personal connections with the communities, allowing for an interdisciplinary approach. Only by bridging the gap between the technical and social sides of an issue can we truly understand the problem at hand before working towards addressing it.

To read more about our journey and story, visit: https://www.mcgillbiodesign.com/projects/solar-a

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