When Kate Boardman, of Montclair, and Paul Rodriguez, of Harrison, march at NJIT’s upcoming May 17 graduation at the Prudential Center, their minds may wander to memories of their work as fledgling mechanical engineers removing bacteria from drinking water and halting water-borne illnesses in a poor Haitian village. Working under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the two made several visits there over the past two years.
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“The idea was to make the people self-sufficient,” said Rodriguez, EWB outgoing President. More recently, he’s been raising funds for a campus-wide Haitian relief effort. During the recent earthquake, he and others from NJIT were on the phone daily with Haitian nuns and hospital representatives helping to access building structures.
When the project ends, 25 bio-sand filters will have been installed in 21 homes, two churches and two schools. The students will have set up a filter production center and worked side-by-side with a dozen students who are now capable of building and installing more units. Some 30,000 people live in Milot and ideally there eventually will be 3,500 units, which the group hopes the people will be able to build themselves.
The idea for this project germinated several years back, when a physician working with Doctors Without Borders in Milot repeatedly saw people becoming ill from the water. He explained the problem to his friend, NJIT Civil Engineering Professor Jay Meegoda, a water expert. The comment inspired Meegoda to start an NJIT chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Students and others flocked to the first meeting.
“I've always had a great ambition to help others and work for a cause,” said Rodriguez. “This work has brought meaning to my life. But it was thanks to NJIT that I found the environmentalist and humanitarian within me. If it wasn't for these experiences, I would have never uncovered and pursued this newfound passion.”
Boardman, who came to engineering later in life, worked side-by-side with Rodriguez. This will be her second bachelor’s degree. Before attending NJIT, she graduated with a fine arts degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design. While there she took a few engineering courses and decided she’d rather be an engineer. She enrolled in NJIT’s mechanical engineering program. Two years ago she worked as a co-operative student at General Electric, studying wind energy and building windmills.
Rodriguez said that despite the scientific evidence, no one in Milot could believe a water problem existed. “This is a town in which women still carry water back to their families from a nearby river,” he said. “Most people speak only Creole and few are educated.” Eventually a local physician and local priest presented the data people could grasp and the project was born. Bio-sand filters work by combining gravel and sand in a vertical cylinder so that as water is poured in, most of the pathogens are eliminated. One cycle produces five gallons of water accessible through a spout.