Puerto Rico trip offers students unique opportunity to gain real-world design experience

7/12/2018 1:54:25 PM

Above: Student Kevin Zhu collects a water sample from a community member's home in Villalba.


By Kristina Shidlauski

Students in Professor Benito Mariñas’ popular environmental engineering lab course had a unique opportunity this spring: to see first-hand the results of a natural disaster, and to work on practical design solutions to aid recovery.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, which was still recovering from damage sustained during Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier. Maria wreaked havoc on the island: Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure was destroyed, leaving everyone without power; heavy rains led to floodwaters up to 30 inches high; and sustained winds reaching 155 miles per hour caused tornado-like damage across the island.

Getting to the water sources required some intrepidness.
Getting to the water sources required some intrepidness.
It was in the weeks that followed that Mariñas decided to make Puerto Rico the focus of his Spring 2018 CEE 449 Environmental Engineering Laboratory class (see “Why Puerto Rico?” at right). The class, which is designed to teach laboratory methods, gives senior undergraduate students the opportunity for real-world design experience in international locations. Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, the extent of the disaster and the ongoing recovery efforts made it an ideal destination for the class this year.

With help from the Safe Global Water Institute, connections were established with local partners – Brenda Guzmán-Colón, Humanitarian Coordinator with Oxfam America and Professor Madeline Torres-Lugo of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez – to facilitate the trip and identify which communities would be best for the students to visit. Funding from the department and the College of Engineering’s International Programs in Engineering office covered expenses for those who made the trip.

The travel team visited three rural areas: Corea Metralla in the Peñuelas municipality, Los Duros in the Orocovis municipality, and Sierritas in the Villalba municipality. In each location, a local guide led them on a hike through the hills to the water sources for each community. Mariñas said that in Puerto Rico, it is not uncommon to find that community members run pipes straight from mountain springs or streams into the village, without any sort of water treatment. The students took water samples from the sources, which were later analyzed using equipment left behind in the hotel rooms.

The team also spoke with community members in each area to learn about their water-related challenges. Many of the students were surprised to learn that some local community members used untreated water by choice, and were seemingly unconcerned with the associated health risks.

George Gunter and Meghan Drew test water samples in a makeshift lab in a hotel conference room.
George Gunter and Meghan Drew test water samples in a makeshift lab in a hotel conference room.
“The most interesting thing that we learned from the trip is that our greatest challenge is not going to be the contaminant levels in the water, but is going to be educating the communities on the dangers of their water,” said Meghan Drew, one of the students who made the trip. “We found through our interactions with community members a shared distaste for chlorine. Some members of the communities had access to [Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority] – the largest purified water distributor to Puerto Rico – water lines, but they refused to use them because they preferred the taste of the untreated water.”

“I always tell the students, engineers think about technical solutions but that’s only 50 percent of the job,” Mariñas said. “The other 50 percent is really understanding what you are designing this for. The context – the economic context, the social context, the traditional context, the religious context – all of this can impact whether your solution will be embraced by that group or not.”

In all, the team collected 17 water samples from sources, water tanks and households in each area they visited. The class spent the rest of the semester developing designs and recommendations based on the travel team’s observations and tests.
With the help of a translator (far right), students interview  a community member in Orocovis.
With the help of a translator (far right), students interview a community member in Orocovis.
Actually getting to see how the knowledge you’re learning applies to the real world is what makes this class different than every other class that’s offered in her environmental engineering track, Drew said.

“You really see your impact,” she said. “In other lectures you learn the information, and you can apply it to your project and you can work in a group, but you can’t really see the impact you’re going to make.”

The students presented their results in an open seminar at the end of the semester, and will also provide copies of their reports to Oxfam for use as a reference during the ongoing recovery effort.