UMass Dartmouth students travel to Panama with engineering and civic engagement focus

Four engineering students return to campus following trip to Valle las Perlas centered on surveying, water testing, face-to-face meetings with villagers, and engagement with Panamanian Ministry of Health

EWB 1
Left to right: Casey Snook, Johnniel Gomez, Zachary Aaronson, Christopher Griffin.

Four UMass Dartmouth engineering students returned to campus in time for the start of the new academic year following their most recent travels to the mainland hills of the Bocas Del Toro province of Panama. This was their fourth trip of a six year project to help the village of Valle las Perlas rehabilitate their water distribution system. The students are members of the UMass Dartmouth Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Chapter focused on sustainable engineering projects aimed at bringing basic human needs to communities around the world.

Students who took part in this year’s trip to Valle las Perlas include:

Zachary Aaronson ’16 of Dartmouth, Massachusetts
Read Zachary's story

Casey Snook ’16 of Merrimac, Massachusetts
Read Casey's story

Christopher Griffin ’16 of Whitman, Massachusetts

Johnniel Gomez ’17 of Springfield, Massachusetts

Building upon success

EWB 2This summer’s trip to the village of 500 indigenous Ngobe people followed last year’s successful implementation trip, in which students helped design and construct four 1,250 gallon water tanks supported by a 17x17 ft. concrete slab. Part of the goals of this trip was ensuring the system of fittings, valves and couplings connected to the tanks were operating correctly. The students were also pleased to learn about the effectiveness of the water tax they helped establish among the villagers. The tax helps fund the maintenance of the water distribution system and creates a sort of “buy-in” into the efficacy of the long-term success of the project.

Gaining practical engineering experience

Surveying the land was an important piece of this year’s assessment trip to facilitate the distribution of water in the community’s current system. The students utilized an Abney level, which proved difficult at times given the mountainous, muddy terrain of the village. The calculations the students make based on this surveying will be vital to make sure water flows through the pipes at the appropriate pressure to water taps that will eventually be installed.

The second major piece of the trip was water quality testing of pH levels, turbidity, and E. coli counts. The processing of this quality testing was greatly enhanced through the EWB students utilizing a DelAgua Single Incubator. The funding for this water monitoring tool, which greatly enhanced the team’s testing quality, was provided by UMass Dartmouth’s College Now program.  A tremendous accomplishment for the students was also developing a flow diagram of existing water lines.

Civic engagement focus

EWB 3In addition to the developing their engineering experience, one of the biggest achievements was the community interactions the group was able to facilitate. Moving away from the more traditional town meetings held in past trips, the students engaged in face-to-face meetings with villagers. This “door-to-door” communication proved most effective for the students in learning about the current water accessibility and hygiene practices of the villagers and for the village to engage and understand more about the EWB project.

The students were also able to engage with the Panamanian province’s Ministry of Health to help contribute to the project's present and future needs. Increasing in-home connections to clean water supplies is of vital interest to the Panamanian government. The goal of any EWB-USA initiative is for any effort to be sustainable and maintained for at least 20 years once a project is completed.

The students hope to return to Valle las Perlas this spring or summer to continue their work.

Accompanying the students on the trip was the group’s project mentor Environmental Engineer Gemma Kite, Horsley Witten Group, headquartered in Cape Cod. UMass Dartmouth alumna Jacqueline Buenrostro ’14, who is fluent in Spanish and is a former member of the university EWB chapter, was also on-hand for the trip assisting students on the project and in communication with the villagers. 

There is a consistent thread of old and new students who stay involved, passing along knowledge to the next travel team and having at least one student develop a connection with the community. With more than 350 projects in 45+ different countries, Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) is helping millions live safely and sustainably. UMass Dartmouth's EWB-USA Chapter is one of 180 university chapters currently operating.

About UMass Dartmouth

UMass Dartmouth distinguishes itself as a vibrant public university actively engaged in personalized teaching and innovative research, and acting as an intellectual catalyst for regional economic, social, and cultural development. UMass Dartmouth's mandate to serve its community is realized through countless partnerships, programs, and other outreach efforts to engage the community, and apply its knowledge to help address local issues and empower others to facilitate change for all.


College of Engineering