Tufts engineers improve water access in Malawi

Students in Engineers Without Borders impact communities in need while developing their own professional and leadership skills.
Students standing in front of a water tower in Malawi. From left to right – Kana Suzuki, Melanie Sun, Julia Zelevinsky, Katie Casey, Natasha Wan, Max Harrington

When engineering undergraduates Max Harrington, Sam Hecht, Natasha Wan, and Julia Zelevinsky (all E25) joined the Tufts chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in the fall semester of their first year, the club had a handful of consistent members. Although students remained dedicated to the goal of applying engineering towards international humanitarian work, pandemic travel restrictions had taken a toll on the organization.

Since 2021, the club has worked to rebuild its membership, and it currently designs and implements sustainable engineering projects for communities in need in Malawi and Nicaragua. With support from faculty advisors Professor Chris Swan and Professor Doug Matson from the Departments of Civil and Environmental and Mechanical Engineering, as well as from industry mentors, six EWB students traveled to Solomoni, Malawi with cultural advisor and Tufts alum Naomi Slagowski, EG08, in the summer of 2023 to help improve a community’s water access.

Engineering abroad

EWB projects average a lifespan of around 6-7 years to ensure that they are carried out sustainably and effectively for the needs of the communities they serve. In 2018, Tufts EWB installed a hand pump in a village in Malawi. The group’s most recent trip to the village in 2023 expanded water access, including implementing a water tower and installing water taps outside of classrooms and in bathrooms for easy water access. EWB also coordinated installation of showers at the school so that students could shower during their menstrual cycles, and sinks in the science classrooms, which opens the possibility of introducing new kinds of experiments to the academic curriculum. Some of the teachers’ homes also received sinks and showers. Water access in Malawi is deeply interconnected with education, particularly for girls, since they often miss school to collect water for themselves and their families.

The altruistic nature of EWB’s work encourages members like Hecht, a computer science major who is now a co-president of the chapter. “I kept coming back because of the people who were in [the group] and the cause that they were working towards. It’s very easy in my mind to forget that we might meet once a week but, in that time, that’s another week that the students in Malawi don’t have access to water in their school,” he says.

These projects provide Tufts students with a glimpse into real-world work experiences as they collaborate with communities, nonprofit organizations, and contractors to ensure that the projects are completed properly. For the project in Malawi, the group worked with the engineering firm Freshwater Project International and the nonprofit Joshua Orphan Community Care. Construction on the new water tower, taps, sinks, and showers started in June 2023, and Tufts EWB students coordinated with the engineering firm and contractors to ensure that the project was on track.

During their two-week visit to Malawi in August, EWB members lived in the local community, interviewing community members and learning the local language, Chichewa, from teachers at the village school. Although much of the construction had been completed by the time of their visit, the group got to help raise the 10,000-liter water tank on its 20-foot-tall tower using ropes – an experience that challenged their assumptions and expectations about how to run an engineering project. “Just seeing how engineering practices are different in different places and how they all work in the end was eye-opening,” says Harrington, a biomedical engineering major. “It’s whatever works the best for your needs and what resources you have.”

The next steps for the Malawi project involve continuing to monitor the infrastructure and visiting the site next year to do financial analysis and ensure that the water tower and taps are functioning properly. Beyond its international work, the Tufts EWB chapter also has two local projects: a mobile greenhouse in Medford, and a collaboration with a private nonprofit, Boston’s Emerald Necklace Conservancy, on erosion and storm water management.

Student impact

In addition to a hands-on engineering curriculum, Tufts School of Engineering offers a range of unique clubs and organizations outside the classroom that can have a profound impact on a student’s future. For each of the four students who joined EWB together in 2021, their experience with the organization has influenced their personal growth and career paths. “It’s definitely made me think about what I want to do in the future, in terms of how my work can be meaningful. Even if that’s something small, but I’m still making people’s lives better in some way, or something much larger scale,” says Hecht.

Club co-president and computer science major Zelevinsky appreciates that EWB, as a student group with members from across different departments and class years from within both the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences, offers an opportunity for students to mentor one another and learn about programs outside of their chosen discipline. “As a freshman not really knowing what to major in, there’s the aspect of mentorship with older engineers, like what classes to take and all that. And now it’s been very rewarding on the other end to be able to provide a little mentorship in the other direction,” she reflects. 

The mentorship that Harrington found within the organization while serving as a lead on the Malawi project inspired him to change his major. His real-world learning experiences in the club gave him confidence that engineering was the best fit for his academic interests. “I came into Tufts as a biology major not a biomedical engineer, but I think EWB is kind of the reason I decided, you know what, I should be an engineer,” he says.

Wan, also majoring in biomedical engineering, discovered her potential as a leader through her work as a project lead on the Malawi team. “Before becoming a project lead, I knew I could lead but I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a person who could be in charge like that,” she says. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about how to manage groups and how to work with people, and I feel like that will be very helpful in the future."

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