The Voice: Summer 2001
Senior engineering students assist other cultures
Cara Miedema DeHaan
When Dordt students Mark Bentum, Matt Davelaar, Dave Vander Plaat, and Matt Van Schouwen went to San Juan, Honduras, in January, they were shocked by the mountainous terrain.
We'd seen pictures, but nothing could prepare us for how absolutely terrible it was, said Davelaar. The others described it as brutal, taxing, and a mountain jungle.
Why the concern over terrain? The students, all senior mechanical engineering majors, had agreed to design and help construct a gravity-fed irrigation system on these hillsides for the village of San Juan.
San Juan is home to about three hundred Tolpan Indians. Originating in the southern United States, the Tolpan people were slowly driven into the Honduran mountains; only one thousand of them are left on earth. Honduran doctors noted that the Tolpan's health was declining because they could raise crops in only two out of the three growing seasons. They suffer greatly from lack of food in the dry season. The doctors asked the Luke Society, a interdenominational medical missions organization, to coordinate the construction of an irrigation system.
Dr. Charles Adams, dean of the natural sciences, first learned about the irrigation
project in the fall of 1999.
I was interested in the possibility of a Christian service project with a more technical side, said Adams. It would be an opportunity for students to serve in an environment of genuine need, to have an off-campus experience, and to accomplish something in cooperation with other Dordt students. The students would have an opportunity not only to serve with their hands through manual labor but also to use what they have learned in their engineering courses.
Last semester, Adams's fluid mechanics class studied the irrigation project as a hypothetical case study and published an initial system design. When the four seniors took on the irrigation system as their senior design project late last fall, they made additional calculations and refined the design. Working in close cooperation with project coordinator Bryn Jones, a medical doctor and member of the Luke Society, they created a strategy for implementing the system: they would design the system, visit Honduras in January to scope out the site and begin construction, then return in March with a large work team to complete the project.
Two days before traveling to Honduras in January, the engineering students were told that whereas their initial research and calculations had been based on placing the irrigation system in fields close to San Juan, they would now be using a different set of fields, located a two-hour trek uphill from the village-and from their water source, the river. Because the water pressure in the pipes relies on gravity, the water source had to be higher than the actual fields themselves. Thus, when they reached the site, their primary goal was to look for a new water source.
The first day, we found two little streams high in the mountains, said Van Schouwen. At first they looked minuscule, but we felt better about them by the end of the week.
After finding water, the students surveyed the land and did new calculations, then started construction on two dams, reservoirs, and filtration systems. This building project was completed by other volunteers by the time the students returned in March. Also during this period, the Tolpan community dug trenches for the pipelines, working in exchange for food provided by the Luke Society.
The students were accompanied in January by Agriculture Professor Ron Vos, who came to assess the impact of irrigation on the ecology and culture of the region.
There were questions I thought should be asked, said Vos. For example, would the irrigation system keep pests alive in the dry season? Which type of irrigation system would be best for the terrain? Would a third crop each year hasten soil depletion? Would an irrigation system create a barrier between the 'haves' and 'have nots'? Would it destroy the social fabric of the community?
Vos was pleased to report that his concerns were addressed. Jones agreed to add some drip irrigation lines rather than sprinklers on the more hilly parts of the field. Vos was also glad that they would be irrigating the upper fields, which were owned by nineteen families, rather than the lower fields, owned by only three families, because more people will benefit from the work.
Between January and March, the students raised financial support for traveling expenses and materials, and confirmed the calculations regarding pressure and flow rate that they had made onsite. Their faculty advisor, Engineering Professor Nolan Van Gaalen, helped organize their trip and helped Jones order and ship the supplies to Honduras.
The work team that went down to Honduras in March, led by Jones, was composed of thirty-five to forty people, including about fifteen from the Dordt community-the senior engineering students, Van Gaalen, a few other students, and several Dordt alumni and family members. Their main responsibility was to carry pipe from the village up the mountain and install it in the trenches.
Like every cross-cultural experience, this trip encouraged individuals to consider
cultural issues. The students were inspired by the witness of the San Juan villagers, who were converted to Christianity in 1994 after receiving the Wycliffe New Testament in their native tongue.
They all were poor, but everyone was pretty equal, unlike in some of the other [non Christian] Tolpan villages, Vander Plaat said. The Tolpan were hard workers, quickly cutting paths through the brush with their machetes. They were happy, smiling, and thoughtful people who took responsibility for their guests' safety; the workers were protected against bandits by members of the Honduran army and police force.
Despite the apparent contentment of the Tolpan villagers, members of the work team were troubled by their poverty. Everybody was asking themselves, 'Why was I born where I was born?' said Van Gaalen, and then, 'What kind of responsibilities do I then have?'
You see the poverty in pictures and on TV, but it hits home so much more when you see it yourself, added Van Schouwen.
The Tolpan were very grateful for the assistance provided by the engineering students and the work team. This is the first time in a long time that anyone's done anything good for them without expecting something in return, said Josh Meendering, a Dordt alum ('99) who joined the work team. That made what we did more special.
To the Tolpan people, our work was a practical demonstration of God's love, Van Gaalen reflected, and they appreciated it. Although they couldn't communicate in English, a sense of camaraderie developed between us.
Although the work team members enjoyed interacting with the Tolpan, their main focus was the irrigation project.
We were there to put that thing in. There was no one to finish it if we didn't get it done, Davelaar pointed out.
And they did get it done. By the fourth day of work, the work team was essentially finished laying the seven thousand feet of pipe and was excited to see water come out the sprinklers.
Many people on the work team had expertise in plumbing or construction, but the engineering students were nevertheless given a degree of leadership. There was a sense that they knew the various details and could be asked questions about design details and changes, said Van Gaalen.
Meendering also spoke highly of the students. The engineers set a good example for everyone, work-wise. I was truly impressed with the professionalism and preparation they displayed, he said. They were never stumped with the questions that came up, but I think what was more impressive was that a lot of questions didn't come up. They did a lot of work to be sure that no problems did arise. All in all, the proof was in the pudding because the thing worked and seemed to work within the parameters they'd predicted.
The students were clearly blessed by their work with the Tolpan and by their work as engineers. We went down as four senior engineering students. We came back different-with more than an academic education, with a different perspective on life and our education, said Van Schouwen.
Van Gaalen as faculty advisor says that although the project was not as technically complex as many senior design projects, it was a valuable experience because so many other kinds of learning occurred beyond the narrowly technical.
Adams agreed. There's more to an engineering project than only technical knowledge, he said, naming also cultural, political, and organizational issues. Engineering is becoming more and more an international business, as technology becomes an activity we do worldwide. If we're going to do good engineering in the twenty-first century, we need to understand international responsibility, cultural differences, and how individuals with their unique personalities relate to the sociology of a region.
Although both Adams and Van Gaalen admitted that financial and time constraints will prevent faculty from actively seeking out international design opportunities, they said that Dordt's engineering department is open to considering other such projects.
As Van Gaalen said, Students are ready to consider projects in other cultures, and we're ready to back them up.