From the Lab to the Real World – Engineering Students Experience How Important Their Work is in the Lives of Others

It took two drops of water to make the impact Clean Water for the World has had in its 10 years of existence. One drop from a purified bottle of water and another from a faucet that contaminated water flowed through. Jerry and Judy Bohl took it to heart when they saw children drinking dirty tap water while they were required to drink from water bottles in their numerous trips to El Salvador in the late 1990s.

Researching how to make clean water available, Jerry and Judy came across many solutions that were expensive and unrealistic in providing access to water for rural communities in El Salvador. The development of the water purifier for Clean Water for the World did not come quickly. Access to water has always been a global issue.

Access to clean water is a human right — but the fight to make it accessible means crossing many cultural barriers, addressing the everyday dilemmas to collect water and being a small part of the greater whole. Most of all, to make access to water a sustainable effort, it requires relationships.

In 2002, Jerry and Judy came across a newsletter article about a ultraviolet light purifier that was piloted in Haiti by Sarah Brownell and Professor Bill Larsen from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Jerry and Judy met with them and received their permission to pursue the further development of a more comprehensive water purifier.

The first prototype was installed at the sister parish, Mary, Mother of the Poor Church, in San Salvador, El Salvador in 2003. A simple unit, with a simple design, it pairs a 5-micron filter with a UV light. The filter removes particulates before passing through the UV light which kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses that cause gastrointestinal viruses, such as diarrhea, a preventable and treatable illness that is the second leading cause in death in children under 5. The water purifier Jerry engineered cleans water at a rate of 5 gallons per minute (300 gallons per hour) and uses the same amount of electricity as a 40 watt light bulb.

Over the years, word spread over the impact of this low-cost, yet highly efficient water purifier, leading to installing more than 250 units the world over, with a high concentration in El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti. Partnerships with organizations, communities and local community leaders have led to the high impact Clean Water for the World sees today in the reduction of illnesses caused by contaminated water.

The impact all began with a delegation trip that Judy and Jerry Bohl took to El Salvador in 1995 and the numerous trips they have made to El Salvador, Haiti and other countries since then. Delegations, for all intents and purposes, are trips foreigners have taken to another country to bear witness to situations occurring in other countries. For Judy and Jerry, this took place through the relationships their church, St. Thomas More of Kalamazoo, had with the sister parish in El Salvador.

Throughout the years, as more individuals, communities, and organizations became involved with Clean Water for the World, the family grew. The passion for providing access to clean water for all spread like wildfire through the relationships Jerry and Judy built. More delegations went to El Salvador and Haiti, later into Guatemala. Fundraising events called Walk 4 Water popped up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio getting even more involved.

One such participant in the Walk 4 Water event, Lucy Hosenfeld, a graduate of the School of Engineering from the University of Toledo, went on a delegation to El Salvador while a student at UofT. Having seen first hand the impact of the water purifiers, Lucy brought forth the idea of the engineering students helping build units as well. In Fall 2015, she taught freshman engineering students who participated in the first course that was part of an orientation course that gave them hands-on experience in an engineering lab. Out of the class four students, Kylee Kramer, Alison Haas, Lisa Young, and Kayla Piezer sought funding to do an immersive trip with one of CWFW longtime partners Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS or Center for Exchange and Solidarity).

This first delegation of University of Toledo students had such an impact that the same four students came back the following academic year to help Dr. Glenn Lipscomb to provide the freshman experience again, leading another 15 students to participate in the delegation over Spring Break in 2017. From the laboratory to reality, Dr. Lipscomb oversees the development of this immersive program where students not only gave a first-hand experience with how to build a purifier, but allows them to see it used in the communities in El Salvador.

For the second delegation, Dr. Lipscomb and second year students presented to the freshman experience course an opportunity to apply to go on a trip where they see the crossroads of engineering and communities for Spring Break. Stacey Nuveman, a freshman environmental engineering student, felt like this trip was right up her alley, wanting to travel the world and help others at the same time. “They interviewed us and asked us why we want to go,” said Stacey. “I told them, this is engineering in real life. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to do that in the classroom and this is a great opportunity to do just that.”

Stacey and another 14 of her classmates met twice a month to discuss the trip. “I didn’t realize when I signed up to go [how much went into preparation]. I just kind of thought we were going to go down and look at systems and install them and that was going to be it. . . . We were told we had to know things about the country before we visited it and I wondered why it was so important. It was [different learning about] the climate and the president and the historical background of the country. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. We got invested, we got involved.”

After a few months of preparation, learning about the history of El Salvador, some of the Spanish language, and learning about the cultural norms, the University of Toledo delegation spent the first week of March 2017 in El Salvador. While it was one thing to prepare, expectations aren’t always the reality. “I definitely was not expecting what I saw when I got there,” said Stacey. “My vision of [the country] before we went probably wasn’t the best, [but it] definitely changed when we got there. . . . I was completely overwhelmed, . . . it was a good overwhelmed. . . . Everything was completely new.”

Leaving early on a Sunday morning from the Detroit airport in 20 degree weather and snow, the group arrived mid-day in El Salvador blazing heat and humidity. Carrying with them nine water purifiers to be installed in new communities throughout the country, a group of 20 embarked on the journey of learning with El Salvadoran communities and water promotors on how to work together to improve the lives of all.

In a whirlwind of a week, the engineering students dove into the work of conducting maintenance on the purifiers, installing new purifiers in new communities, conducting evaluations with community members and school administrators on the impact of the water purifier on the community, and learning about the culture of El Salvador. For Stacey, one of the biggest surprises was the hospitality of the people, so welcoming and “so happy to meet us and so happy that we were there. People that we didn’t even know let us stay in their houses and fed us everyday. I thought, ‘This would never happen at home.’”

Engineering in a laboratory means working through design, technical developments and functioning of structures, machinery and technology. When it goes from the lab to implementation or regular, routine use, engineers work to improve the functions of the structure or machinery in order for it to be as efficient and effective as possible. The partnership that developed through the relationships built over the years, the network of supporters, communities and organizations in the Clean Water family, has led to more than 250 water purifiers installed the world over, most centrally focused in Haiti, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Engineering is more than a technical job working in industries — it can improve the lives of others all over the world. Clean Water for the World began with engineers and continues with its relationship with the University of Toledo and its manufacturing team of volunteers in Otsego, Michigan.

It didn’t take much for this journey to begin. It took a drop of water, a relationship, and answering the question, “What can I do?”. Jerry, a machinist by trade, and Judy, his wife, took a passion and made it into the global impact it is today: 150,000 people have access to clean water all over the world. But we can do more. We want to do more. And it takes all of us answering the question, what can I do? Really the question is, what can WE do? Together, connected, we all have a part in this fight to make clean water accessible for all.