Env. Eng. Students Work Around Setbacks, Help Nicaraguan Villagers, And Meet With President

Confiscated equipment? Leaking pipes? Neither kept the students of Prof. Jaehong Kim's course, Environmental Technology in the Developing World, from helping villagers on a recent trip to Nicaragua.

During Spring Break, Prof. Kim, two teaching assistants and six students from the course (ENVE 410L) visited the north central region of Nicaragua. It's the second straight year that Kim's class has made the trip, which is designed to find ways to boost the living conditions of villagers by improving air and water quality. This year, they spent most of their eight days in and around the city of Jinotega and worked with the assistance of the NGO Comunidad Connect.

To prepare for the trip, students spent weeks building equipment. Unfortunately, much of it was confiscated by customs officials at the Managua airport when the class arrived in Nicaragua. Among items taken were several testing kits and materials for a 30-gallon tank designed for a village's water chlorination system. Kim, who has been to Nicaragua numerous several times before, had the proper documentation. He met with lawyers and other officials in Nicaragua, but was unable to get the equipment returned during their stay.

Other items confiscated were air-testing kits designed to be worn around the body. The idea for these sensors, which Kim's freshman students built at the CEID as a part of ENAS 118 class in Fall 2015, came out of last year's trip to the same region. Kim and his students at the time found that indoor cooking stoves were emitting high levels of air pollutants. Exactly how much users of the stoves are subject to these pollutants is hard to determine, though, since conventional bench-top monitors don't pick up on certain nuances.

"Exposures to a person might be very different from what's measured on a bench-top because of how air flows and the fact that people frequently go inside and outside their houses," Prof. Kim said, adding that the wearable sensors would pick up on these variances.

That they weren't able to use these monitors was "emotionally tough at the beginning," he said. "But one student told me it was a wonderful learning experience, because this is what can actually happen in the real world."

And there were other obstacles.

"When we went to do the tracer tests, workers at the water plant had turned off the water because there was a pipe breakage somewhere," said student Theodore Agbi. "Obviously, we couldn't do the tracer tests we planned for that day."

So, like engineers, they found new solutions.

"We would go to community homes and interview people about their water," Agbi said. "We would go and do biological water quality tests and chlorination tests in their homes and map out the distance from the water treatment facility to these homes to get a sense of whether there was more bacteria the farther away the homes were."

Although the group's sophisticated DelAgua testing devices were confiscated, the students still had simpler testing units that they could use. And the less-than-ideal situation allowed the students to express their inner-MacGyvers. Left without proper incubators to control the temperature of the water samples they collected, the students fashioned their own climate-controlling devices with coolers and disposable hand warmers. Their ability to improvise impressed Kim.

"The students really stood up and said 'We're in trouble – let's work together.' It was great to see that spirit," Prof. Kim said. "They did a lot of work. I was worried, but they were able to do a lot of the chlorine testing."

Through a few connections, Kim and the students had the opportunity to meet with former Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños, who led the country from 1997 to 2000. Bolaños, who received his degree in industrial engineering, talked with Kim and the students. Among other topics, they talked about the controversial plans for building the Nicaragua Canal, which would be one of the biggest construction projects in history. Environmental concerns and other factors, however, have kept the project from taking off.

Adam Sokol, a junior in the class, said the trip gave him a chance to see "the human side of engineering."

"People always ask me what environmental engineering is, which is a hard question to answer because it encompasses so much," Sokol said. "This trip helped remind me that the basics are so important, such as providing basic clean water and clean air - providing the things that people need to live."

The course overall, he said, has been extremely valuable.

"It's really unlike any course I've every taken at Yale," he said. "It's a great exercise in preparation, and it let's you apply a lot of what we've learned in engineering. It's a really good experience."