via Jacksonville: Collecting water for cooking, cleaning and other household chores used to be an all-day affair for the women of La Esperanza, a rural village of about 1,000 people in the highlands area of Guatemala.
But the University of North Florida’s first all-female senior civil engineering team designed a new water distribution system for the community, which was built by local workers and began operations this spring. The system not only benefited an entire community and freed hours of time for its women, but showcased the skills and potential of the five members of the team who graduated in early May.
“We hope that we have helped to show that engineering isn’t just a man in a suit working in a cubicle, it is about passionate people solving problems in the world,” said team leader Taylor Broussard, 22.
“Helping other people to get their basic needs in life taken care of is one of the most important things you could do,” said team member Amber Slack, also 22.
Christopher Brown, their civil engineering associate professor at UNF, said he “couldn’t be more proud.”
“This team of engineering students was not only the first all-female civil engineering team in UNF history, they were truly one of the best teams I have ever worked with,” he said. “This was obviously more than just a senior project to them, they truly care about the villagers. They engineered an incredible project on an international scale, overcoming language barriers and successfully organizing with our partners.”
PLENTY OF LOGISTICS
The team came together easily.
Broussard, Slack, Sammy Kovalenko, Piper Austin and Rosemarie Pinto were already friends and wanted their year-long senior engineering project to focus on water resources.
They were one of eight teams in Brown’s civil engineering senior capstone course that focuses on community-based projects with real clients. Most of the projects are in Northeast Florida, but some have been in other parts of the state and in Haiti and Guatemala, he said.
Then came design, planning, fundraising and several team trips to Guatemala.
A critical thread in the process was Rosemary Takacs, a former Peace Corps volunteer and member of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach. She met Broussard through the student’s work on a similar water project in the Honduras.
Takacs connected the team to Agua Para la Salud, a nonprofit in Guatemala that builds water systems and other projects, and a similar U.S.-based nonprofit, Wisconsin Water for the World. She knew the area, guiding and translating for the team on their visits to the country, team members said.
She also connected them to her Rotary Club, which, along with Rotary District 6970 and the Beaches Rotaract Club, helped raise a large portion of the $95,000 or so needed to complete the work.
“As part of Rotary’s goals, providing clean water ranks right below preventing polio,” Takacs said. “It is hard to measure the lives saved, but we can easily say all lives are improved by having readily accessible clean water.”
The need in La Esperanza was clear.
The community’s water source was a high-elevation mountain spring, but its output had so declined over the past 20 years that it was no longer reliable. Residents either captured water in jugs from local taps, which during the dry season was only an hour per day, or hiked to a lower spring and carried water to the nearest road.
“A villager waiting with a pickup truck would collect the containers and drive them up the winding mountain road. Women would meet him at the top of the path and retrieve their water, carrying it the final distance to their home,” Takacs said.
The limited water led to skin infections, dehydration and other illness.
But designing a water distribution for the village was a challenge for student engineers more familiar with flat Florida than an area with mountains and high seismic activity. Also, with three languages involved — English, Spanish and Kaqchikuel Mayan — they had to overcome communication barriers.
In addition, the design had to be low-cost and low-maintenance, sustainable for population growth and built with locally available materials and equipment. And there was the issue of chlorination, which is a common method for purifying water in developing countries.
The people of La Esperanza held the “Mayan belief that water is sacred and view chlorine as a contaminant rather than a disinfectant,” according to the team report. After an in-depth study, they decided to use Solar Water Disinfection, with a backup chlorination system in the case of an infectious outbreak.
The project includes a pumping system designed by Wisconsin Water for the World that brought water 2,600 feet horizontally from the spring — through an elevation change of 500 feet — to the students’ distribution system. Their system featured two 10,000-liter tanks and four gravity-fed distribution lines connected to every home and a school.
The residents, once they figured out the system, were pleased.
“Over the course of 24 hours, they adjusted to it,” Takacs said.
The team was not present during construction, but visited later for engineering inspections. At that point, water was running to every home and water-pressure measures were satisfactory. They pronounced the project “a huge success.”
PAVING THE WAY
“Using my education to help people is a very satisfying feeling,” said Kovalenko, 21. “I decided to pursue civil engineering because I want to benefit humanity. Being able to do that with this project is rewarding because I saw my aspirations turn into a reality.”
She was also proud to be part of a project that showcased women working in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — that have historically been held by men.
“Women in STEM need to be promoted. Being a female in engineering, I have seen a difference in the way females are treated versus males in academia and the professional world,” Kovalenko said. “I feel like sort of a pioneer sometimes.”
Each of the team members have career plans that will be an example to other female engineering hopefuls.
Kovalenko will work in environmental engineering in Portland, Ore., Slack as a dredge engineer in California. Austin, 22, and Pinto, 23, are headed to jobs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville.
And Broussard said she intends to launch a nonprofit aboard a tall-ship schooner in the South Pacific, where she will work on water solutions and raise awareness about climate change and its impact on coastal communities.
“These young women are … passionate about their efforts to save the world,” said Brown, their professor. “I know they will go on to change the world for the better.”