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Engineering on a Global Scale

The opportunity to travel and make a difference through engineering catapulted Barbara Johnston, EI, Civil Engineer for Snyder & Associates from her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska to the developing community of Malagana, Colombia this past December.

“I’ve always had a passion for community development and problem-solving,” she says. “As a member of EWB [Engineers Without Borders], I get to apply my skillset on a global scale and travel, which is a fun way to learn about developing communities and their needs firsthand. Many of the areas we serve are a lot like the cities and towns we work with at Snyder & Associates; they just face different challenges.”

 

Johnston was one of seven engineers, accompanied by two students from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), who participated in the six-day trip to Malagana, a community of 8,000 people located an hour southeast of Cartagena. It was the second trip for members of Nebraska’s Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-NE), following an initial assessment trip in August 2016.

“We’re supporting EWB’s mission and vision by working to improve community quality of life in Malagana and address its basic needs,” shares Susana Lizcano, Ph D., President of EWB-NE.

The focus of their work is helping the community address water quality and wastewater treatment concerns. Once the primary issues with the water are identified, they hope to eliminate or at the very least, greatly reduce preventable water-related illnesses.

Local schoolchildren learn proper handwashing techniques from EWB volunteers.

During the trip, the team verified data collected during the 2016 assessment trip such as demographic information, soil percolation data, precipitation and water usage, and consumption data. They also collected new data including a secondary water quality analysis along with a topographic survey of the community and potential project locations. Meanwhile, the two UNMC students interviewed local doctors and community members, assessed local health records, and provided WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) demonstrations.

Working alongside a water resources engineer and a chemical engineer, Johnston says the experience she’s gained as a Civil Engineer with Snyder & Associates empowered her to guide the survey team.

“I hadn’t surveyed since college, and my team members had never used survey data in their day-to-day work or really looked at a topo survey before,” she shares. “With a background in Civil Engineering and the type of work we do at Snyder, I knew it was important to take frequent points, label them well, and what to capture in order to have valuable information once we got back to the states.”

Adopting a Holistic Perspective

Gathering survey data with the assistance of local schoolchildren who wanted to learn about engineering.

Since settling back into her role at Snyder & Associates’ Omaha office, Johnston credits the trip as a valuable learning and growth experience.

“It has helped me approach challenges from different angles and pushed me out of my role as a designer, adopting more of a big picture, holistic perspective,” she states.

Before the trip, Johnston didn’t have much experience assessing the needs of a community. From transportation and paving type jobs to development and airport projects, the issues she provides solutions for are often defined in advance.

“In Malagana, we came into the project at an earlier stage, which meant we had to figure out their needs, priorities, and work to understand all the moving parts of the community. It was about much more than the design itself.”

Back home, Johnston’s refreshed perspective toward addressing community needs and problem-solving has already made an impact. With numerous projects currently underway, she points to the 89th circle grading, paving, and storm sewer project in Omaha as a prime example of how she’s applying her experience.

“It’s a small, neighborhood cul-de-sac project, but there’s plenty of factors to consider,” explains Johnston. “My experience in Malagana helped me approach the project as a whole with the stakeholders in mind and address important aspects in advance.”

Next Steps in Malagana

Barbara and her colleagues enjoying a boat tour of the Panama Canal before their return to the U.S.

While the group is likely to take another trip to Malagana in 2018, they must first establish and compare design alternatives and begin a preliminary design.

“The alternative design stage is our core contribution,” states Lizcano. “It will also lead to the most financially challenging phase, which is securing funds for implementation. The knowledge of our team and their time contributions will help us reach our goals.”

The EWB organization as a whole commits to a community program for five years, which is the current time commitment for EWB-NE professionals in Malagana. Lizcano says the focus of the next trip will be sharing the proposed design alternatives. She hopes the trip will take place this summer so that the community can apply for Colombian government funds by October.

“There’s still plenty of work to be done in Malagana. I’m committed to this program and would love to see this project through,” declares Johnston.