The Charger Blog

Working to Develop a Water Filter to Bring Clean Water to Communities 3,127 Miles Away

Students in the University of New Haven’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders are working to create a water filtration system that would treat drinking water in rural Ecuador.

December 10, 2018

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer


student
Skyler Szerszen and Sam Zurowski assemble mold

The instructions for the wooden mold that would eventually become a concrete BioSand Filter were 60 pages long and full of diagrams and charts. They were complex and, at times, a bit unclear.

The members of the Tagliatela College of Engineering chapter of the Engineer Without Borders (EWB) did what engineers do: they worked as a team to solve the problem. They built the mold; they disassembled part of it and built it again. “Trying again, that’s been a big part of this,” said Cory Senney, a senior civil engineering major and EWB chapter president.

Their goal: to construct and test a BioSand Filter that would provide a sustainable method for treating drinking water for 26 communities in the parroquia of San Lucas, Ecuador. Residents living in the farming communities in the Andes Mountains have lacked access to clean water. This has caused illness among residents and has often forced residents to miss work, said Jean Nocito-Gobel, civil engineering professor and EWB chapter advisor. “The way they resolve the problem right now is by giving pills to elderly residents, children and pregnant women,” Nocito-Gobel added.

Developed by O Horizons, an international non-profit organization at work on projects in the areas of clean water, agriculture, energy and economic development, the BioSand filter uses sand, gravel, and biological processes to filter out contaminants in water, making it safe for drinking. According to the O Horizon website, the BioSand Filter can “effectively eliminate cholera, typhoid, E coli, amoebic dysentery, and many additional pathogens that are harmful to humans.”

“We’re using what we’re learning in the classroom and doing what we love – engineering – working on a project that could make a real impact on people’s lives.”Skyler Szerszen

The filters – which can fit inside or just outside a house – don’t need electricity to run. “They can be constructed using local materials and the mold can be used 25 times, so communities can share minimal costs,” Nocito-Gobel said.

The process of creating the mold and the filter “has been a real learning curve,” Nocito-Gobel said. But the club members – Senney, Skyler Szerszen, Emann Stennett, Glen Craig, Pedro Martinez, Rebecca Giedraitis, Reinaldo Buitron, Michael Bond, Sam Zurowski and Sophia Oselador – were undaunted. “We broke the process down step-by step,” said Martinez, a senior civil engineering major.

Originally, the chapter planned to build a very large sand filter but Nocito-Gobel said costs would be prohibitive for the economically-challenged community. A fortuitous moment occurred when EWB chapter members attended the Maker Faire in New York last year and met representatives from O Horizons who shared their insights into the BioSand Filter as well as their designs.

Club members said they liked how the project continually stretched their skills and they liked how purposeful the project is. “I learn best doing hands-on projects and I’ve learned so much,” Szerszen said.

“We’re using what we’re learning in the classroom and doing what we love – engineering – working on a project that could make a real impact on people’s lives.”

“We rely on the generosity of the university and donors to provide the financial resources needed to allow us to implement this sustainable drinking water strategy in San Lucas.” Jean Nocito-Gobel

“When I heard that our work could help people halfway around the world, I was all in,” Bond said.

In April, they showcased the project at the University’s Scholarship Ball. “Everyone was very excited about the work we were doing,” Senney said. “It was very rewarding.”

This fall, they’ll submit their plan and drawings to the national offices of EWB-USA and an advisory committee of engineers will review the project. “They want to make sure that the design, the logistics and the construction plans are all very sound,” Nocito-Gobel said. “They want to ensure that the project will work.”

Once the project is approved, six members of the club, Nocito-Gobel and a program mentor will travel to Ecuador next spring to teach community leaders how to construct the molds. The student chapter must raise the funds to cover the expenses. Financial support provided by the Provost’s Discretionary Fund, the Tagliatela College of Engineering, John Falconi of the University’s Board of Governors, and alumni has allowed the student chapter to travel to Ecuador in the past, Nocito-Gobel said. “We rely on the generosity of the university and donors to provide the financial resources needed to allow us to implement this sustainable drinking water strategy in San Lucas,” Nocito-Gobel added. Szerszen is exploring crowdsourcing.

Emann Stennett, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, said she was drawn to the organization “because I loved the name – Engineers Without Borders,” she said. “It seems limitless.”

So too are the possibilities for the project to create positive change, say EWB club members. “We can teach one community how to build the molds,” Senney said. “And they can pass what they’ve learned onto the next community and the next. We hope it will help many, many people.”