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Engineering With Eternal Impact

April 27, 2007

Brian Thomas maneuvered the four-wheel drive SUV through rivers, over massive ruts and across narrow dirt bridges on a muddy unmarked highway en route to a remote village tucked away in the mountains of Honduras. As the morning mist settled on the dense jungle ahead, the team of engineers from Baylor University finally arrived. Surrounded by the lush forests and rushing rivers was their destination, Pueblo Nuevo.

Students Jonathan Crabtree, Chris Matcek, Ryan McGhee and Leah Richter ventured with Thomas to the Honduran village in late 2006 as part of Engineers with a Mission, a 2-year-old program begun at Baylor to educate students about the needs of developing countries and provide hands-on opportunities to serve others. Thomas, a lecturer at Baylor and faculty adviser for the organization, says this trip is a fulfillment of the group's motto, "A single act can have eternal consequences."

In spite of its name, there is very little "new" in Pueblo Nuevo, a village of about 200. A spring-fed mountain stream cuts through the jungle nearby and provides drinking water for the village. Thomas' team, however, sees it as a promising natural resource of another kind, water power. The team hopes to construct a sluiceway, an aqueduct-like channel to bring a part of the river's flow to a very small hydroelectric generator know as a microhydro. The generator, while producing a small amount of electricity - about as much as 10 light bulbs - could potentially make a significant improvement to the quality of life in the primitive village.

The goal is to replace the current mode of lighting, homemade kerosene "candils," with battery-powered lanterns. The candils are essentially glass jars with cloth wicks poked through the metal top and provide the only source of light. The kerosene is costly, emits poor light, black smoke and poses a significant health and fire hazard. Because most of the villagers are subsistence farmers, they could be spending as much as half of their income on kerosene, says McGhee, a mechanical engineering graduate student. Battery-powered lanterns, which would be charged by the new generator, would cost much less to operate and provide a safe efficient alternative to the kerosene candils.

Team members spent most of their time at Pueblo Nuevo in the river taking measurements that will allow them to accurately construct the aqueduct and hydroelectric generator they plan to install in August.

Credible connections

Thomas and his group are partnering with a network of churches in Honduras that are supported by Denver-based Mission to the Americas. A few hundred small churches have been established in this area of the country. Pueblo Nuevo has a new church and a bivocational pastor who is part of the network.

"The network is very important because it adds credibility," Thomas says. "The villagers see that the church brought us in, and it illustrates God's provision for them."

Thomas says the entire experience is transformative for the students as well, stretching them spiritually, mentally and physically. Aside from the grueling 12-hour work days it will take to construct the water intake system, seeing the living conditions first-hand can take its toll. Each night, the group discusses poverty, wealth and suffering.

"It's sometimes a shock to our students to see people dealing with suffering and being afforded no opportunities," he says. "Each night, we ask the students questions like what are the spiritual moments of the day and how does this affect your relationship with God."

After finishing their measurements in Pueblo Nuevo, the team journeyed on to the town of Boniatillo, where the group set out to tackle another global problem - clean drinking water.

Through another Honduran minister, Thomas discovered that purified water was available in Boniatillo, but because of the cost, the people chose to drink the local tap water, which was free. Although it is relatively clear and free of debris, it is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.

To provide affordable, clean water, the team installed a battery-powered water purification system, which chlorinates the water similar to the way swimming pool water is purified, McGhee says. A water committee from the local church will maintain the system and ensure that the water is pure before it is distributed. The committee will charge only a few pennies to provide funds for maintenance and a small income for committee members.

After preparing their first batch of fresh water the Baylor engineers gave away samples and held their breath. "If they taste it and don't like it, they won't drink it," with or without the bacteria, McGhee says.

As people gathered to taste the water, the team was relieved and encouraged to see smiles. Then, people began to fill five-gallon jugs to the brim to transport home.

McGhee saw the trip as a window into the world he hopes to eventually enter as a professional. "It's an act of worship for me," McGhee says. "I have been given a specific skill set for engineering work and while I'm not the type of person who can get up in front of a church group and play music, I can sit behind a desk and do calculations. Hopefully, I can bring glory to God that way."

Global impact

Since 2002, hundreds of Baylor students and faculty members have traveled to countries around the world, such as Honduras, exploring what it looks like to serve God by using the skills and expertise from their major and field of study. These "discipline-specific" mission trips allow students to serve indigenous populations by offering basic health care (pre-med, pre-nursing students), literacy education (education students), technological infrastructure (engineering and computer science students) and religious education (pre-ministry students), among other efforts. As part of the trips, students reflect on their missions experience through designated readings, shared discussions and personal journaling.

"By helping students see how their specific abilities and interests may be of service to others and how Christians are called to loving responsiveness to those in need, the program aspires to help inform a long-term sensitivity to a Christian calling, whether in the context of professional or lay ministry," says Dub Oliver, vice president for student life at Baylor.

This spring and summer, Baylor will send four teams to Honduras (medical, deaf education, ministry and engineering), five teams to Kenya (music, education and seminary), and five teams to Armenia (outdoor recreation, engineering, business, environmental and general ministry).

The bigger picture

The engineering Honduras trip is part of a much larger Baylor project to bring "appropriate technologies" to developing countries. The appropriate technology approach is based on helping people in other countries develop needed infrastructure, such as clean drinking water and reliable power sources. The approach also helps locals identify timely products utilizing their natural resources to produce for the world market.

Thomas credits Walter Bradley, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor, for introducing him to the concept of appropriate technology. Since the concept took flight a few years ago, interest has been growing at Baylor. Thomas and his students have traveled to about six separate countries, constructing appropriate technologies that provide a better quality of life. In fact, interest at Baylor has increased so much that the School of Engineering and Computer Science started an appropriate technologies class.

Other Baylor schools also are getting involved. Thomas is partnering with the entrepreneurial program at Baylor's Hankamer School of Business to provide a business model for each appropriate technology. In the case of the Honduras trip, local residents will be charged a small fee by the owner of the generator, in this case the local pastor, to use the generator. Baylor business students are providing a business model so the system is financially self-sustaining.

Formed in 2004 with the guidance of Bradley and Thomas, Engineers with a Mission has about 45 student members. It has a Project Implement Testing crew of 17 students. The latter group is constructing the turbine and designing specifics of the placement of the hydroelectric generator for the Pueblo Nuevo project.

Ongoing support

The team plans to return to Honduras in August to build the aqueduct to bring the river water to the generator. While all of the Baylor students who travel on the trips pay their own way, there is still a cost to bring the supplies to these countries and construct the projects. The return trip is contingent on the group raising about $5,000 for expenses.

Funding so far has come primarily from individual donors like Baylor alumni Josh and Virginia Beckham. "We have always been interested in and supported missions," says Virginia Beckham. Even while a student, she was involved in local outreach, sharing the gospel with neighborhood children through songs and Bible stories. Their oldest daughter Camille is also a missionary to the deaf, and has served in Peru and Argentina, and soon will travel to Thailand.

The Beckhams are also regular supporters of Missions Week at Baylor and saw the engineering trip as an opportunity to do even more. "Mission work can be accomplished in a number of ways, Virginia Beckham says. "What these engineering students are doing is important because it will open doors for the gospel."

As a bonus, the Beckhams' gift to the project increased by half through a gift matching program from IBM, where Josh Beckham worked until his retirement in 1991.

With support from Baylor and individuals like the Beckhams, Thomas hopes to take additional trips to developing countries where their efforts will have a significant impact for the students as well as those being served. "We are minimizing poverty, directly improving their way of life and building them spiritually," he says. "On the student side, we are giving them an intercultural experience and cultivating the view that life is a service."

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