College of Engineering alumnae take community service global with Engineers Without Borders

When Wayne State College of Engineering alumnae Najwa Abouhassan ’07 BSEE, ’11 MSEE and Genie Abboud ’07 BSEE and current graduate student in the engineering management program, returned from their first trip to Nicaragua with the nonprofit group Engineers Without Borders - Detroit Professional Chapter (EWB-Detroit), they were “hooked.”

Abouhassan and Abboud joined the program during its second phase, which focused on efforts to improve sanitation conditions in the village of Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua. In May 2015, they traveled to the village with other members of EWB-Detroit to collect data by going house to house interviewing the community. They found most members of the community relied on outhouses, which can lead to polluted groundwater runoff contaminating the lagoon as confirmed by the water test results.

“There are very few causes that you can support where you can see the direct impact that your time and money is having on the lives of people in need,” says Abboud. “By working with EWB-Detroit, we have been able to see it in the appreciation in the faces of the people we are helping with our engineering experience.”

Responding to the need found from their data collection, Abouhassan and Abboud set out with other members of EWB-Detroit to design a sustainable method of sanitation practices for the community that would minimize water contamination and improve general health. Due to Laguna de Apoyo’s designation as a nature reserve, authorities mandated that any sanitation system design must be self-contained and sustainable so as to eliminate any further bacterial contamination to the lagoon. To fulfill this request, it is imperative that the community be involved in the planning of this project so an effective and manageable system can be implemented. Coordination with the community is organized through the community water committee comprised of representatives from the village.  

Abouhassan and Abboud’s efforts are part of a larger effort by EWB-Detroit to improve drinking water in the Laguna de Apoyo community. EWB-Detroit began a partnership over two years ago with local nonprofit and national authorities in Nicaragua. The first phase of the project involved establishing a partnership with the community, assessing the level of contamination in the lagoon, and collecting water samples for a hydrological study to determine the optimal location for a new well to be drilled. Initial visits to the village found that surface water in the lake had arsenic levels up to 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit, due to the volcanic soil as the lake lies within an old crater. 

The only nearby municipality is unable to provide water to the community because their tank capacity cannot support the additional capacity needed. The dry season in the village lasts for six months so rain catchment is not a feasible option. Most residents rely on shallow, hand-dug wells for drinking water that draw from the top layer of ground water, which still contains significant levels of arsenic. Arsenic contamination in drinking water can have short-term negative health effects as well as long-term effects, including cancer.

EWB-Detroit has committed to a five-year timeline for this project. They are currently in the design stage, working with the community to agree to a plan before presenting the proposal to the national authorities in Nicaragua for approval to begin the implementation stage. Local community members will implement the designs, with members of EWB-Detroit overseeing construction and testing. 

“It really is the most rewarding experience to be able to take the education we received at Wayne State and create meaningful impact globally,” says Abouhassan. “While training to be an engineer, you develop the mindset of a problem-solver, so when you see people lacking basic human needs; you go back to what you learned in school to make positive change.”

Abboud and Abbouhassan hope to increase the level of participation from current students because they believe that community service is essential to an engineering education. 

“Many students would benefit from having more program management experience, and this program really offers that experience in a dynamic environment,” explains Abboud. 

The program also offers interdisciplinary opportunities for engineers to expand beyond their current field. Both Abboud and Abouhassan are trained as electrical engineers, but they found themselves integrating environmental engineering methods such as soil sampling into their efforts. 

“Engineering is really taken to another level when you see firsthand that people’s lives are dependent on your success. Wayne State’s College of Engineering gave us the tools to make that success happen, and we look forward to offering this experience to the students and alumni of the college,” says Abouhassan.

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If you are interested in learning more about Engineers Without Borders-Detroit, contact Najwa Abouhassan at najwa@ewb-detroit.org.

About Engineers Without Borders-Detroit
The Detroit Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders is a group of dynamic and hard-working professionals from around Metro Detroit committed to helping communities in our region and around the world attain a better quality of life. EWB-Detroit is a chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA, a non-profit organization with over 13,000 members and 300 chapters across the country. Visit EWB-Detroit.org

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Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution of higher education offering 380 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 28,000 students. For more information about engineering at Wayne State University, visit engineering.wayne.edu.