Combined sciences paid off on Ecuador trip

Engineers, anthropologists track impact of Ecuador water project

posted March 19, 2017 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / UW-Stout News Bureau

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    UW-Stout photo | Enlarge
    - UW-Stout’s Damien Adamski, right, and Juan Salas of UW-Madison walk through Tabuga, Ecuador. They were part of an effort involving those universities to install a clean water system for villagers living in Tabuga.

MENOMONIE — If Damien Adamski hadn’t come to fully appreciate the “applied” aspect of his applied social science major at UW-Stout, he did by late January when he returned from Ecuador.

Heading into his final semester, Adamski, of Eau Claire, and associate professor Tina Lee went on a research trip with a team of engineering students from UW-Madison. The UW-Madison students were finishing installation of a clean water system in the village of Tabuga, on the northwest coast.

As anthropologists, Adamski and Lee joined the engineering team to document the impact of the project, in part because UW-Stout engineering students are working on a similar project with villagers in Nicaragua. The UW-Stout project is part of National Science Foundation grant; money from that grant funded the Ecuador trip.

“This was a chance to get some real fieldwork experience and use the skills that I’ve learned here at UW-Stout,” said Adamski, who has an anthropology focus within his major and is minoring in economics.

“It was nice to see this group form a lasting connection with the locals,” he said. “We spent most of our time going to houses interviewing them. I did one-on-one interviews with the Madison students on ethics issues and transcribed and coded them to develop some common themes.“

Adamski said that the value of the project became clear on the final night of their trip, when they attended a ceremony related to their visit organized by local residents. 

“We went to what was like a closing ceremony. The gifts that were given to us and the kind words really hit home for me. These people were really thankful for what had been done,” Adamski said of Tabuga residents.

Field notes

Lee and Adamski were impressed with the water system, which was designed and installed over several years. But their interest was specific to the relationship the engineers developed with the villagers.

Lee and Adamski observed as UW-Madison students went house-to-house in the village and interviewed residents who live there. 

The group hiked about a half-mile daily from a lodging site in a preserve through the jungle to the village of about 350 people.

“We wanted to see how students interacted with the community and what their relationship was with community members,” Lee said.

UW-Madison students, engineers plus one political science major, tested the water for E. coli and sampled water pressure before turning over the system to the village.

Residents had been hesitant to drink the water until students arrived in the village and provided proof that it was free of E. coli. 

“Students showed them the E. coli test. We were drinking the water very conspicuously in front of each other,” Lee said. “It’s a pretty amazing thing — everyone had clean water.”

‘Human impacts’

The Ecuador project, through Engineers Without Borders, provided invaluable field research for Lee and Adamski, who will pass on their experience to UW-Stout associate professor Devin Berg, head of an ongoing water project in Nicaragua that also is in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders.

Lee, along with Berg and Elizabeth Buchanan, director of the Center for Applied Ethics and acting director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, also is working with the Engineers Without Borders organization to develop a guide to best practices on how to measure the social impacts of such efforts.

“We can give advice to Devin and to Engineers Without Borders on how to do this well and make sure it’s clear what the community needs and wants,” Lee said. “Engineers are not always trained at how to look at the human impacts. It helped (in Ecuador) to have someone trained in social science to pull apart the impacts.”

Adamski is a paid research assistant for Lee on the UW-Stout grant. He has conducted interviews, catalogued Engineers Without Borders projects and gathered and analyzed data. He will graduate in May.

The UW-Stout water system project in Las Macias, Nicaragua, headed by Berg, is nearing the end of the design phase. 

A return trip to the village is planned in August. Construction and installation of the water system designed by students will begin, Berg said.