Bernard Amadei has friends in Belize, Rwanda, Mali, Peru, and Nepal. And the list of countries doesn’t end there. His name is recognized in dozens of remote villages, from Asia to South America, as an engineer with a heart of gold.
Several years ago, the CU-Boulder professor of civil engineering visited a Mayan village in Belize, where he was struck by the fact that the girls could not go to school because they had to carry water all day from the river to their village. "It broke my heart, and I decided that I was going to do something about it," he recalls.
Since then, Amadei, a specialist in geological engineering, has refocused his career on the needs of the less fortunate—and in doing so he has launched a virtual revolution in engineering education.
Amadei led a series of delegations to the village of San Pablo, Belize, during which CU engineering students and a local engineer joined him in installing a sustainable water delivery system using a pump powered by a local waterfall. Quickly seeing the impact that could be achieved—both on developing communities and on engineering students—he started a nonprofit organization to expand on the concept.
In less than eight years, that organization, Engineers Without Borders-USA, has grown to include 14,000 student and professional members in 235 university and professional chapters working on 250 sustainable engineering projects in 48 countries around the world.
EWB-USA projects address a range of basic needs, including water, sanitation, food, energy, and shelter, and they are done at the request of local communities, who work side-by-side with the engineering experts—digging ditches, carrying materials, and learning how the systems work so they can maintain them.
Amadei calls it "engineering with a human face," and a slew of awards give testimony to the fact that it is making a real difference in people’s lives.
"Dr. Amadei is literally engineering change in pockets of our country and world that are bereft of even the most basic living infrastructures," says Teresa Heinz, chair of the Heinz Family Foundation, which selected him as co-recipient of the 2007 Heinz Award for the Environment. "His talented teams of academics, professionals, and students put to rest the tired notion that engineering and environmental protection don’t go together by demonstrating how creative thinking and high standards can benefit both people and the planet." Project materials and the travel expenses of EWB teams are financed primarily through private donations, while the manpower is provided by students and industry volunteers. Students get a chance to apply their skills to help the people who need it most, and for many it has been a life-changing experience.
"It’s been a really broadening experience and helped me open my mind and consider different ways to do things," says Carrie McClelland, a CU graduate student who worked on a bridge project in Haiti and one of many students drawn to the program for the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.
At CU, graduate and undergraduate students can complete related coursework in the Engineering for Developing Communities track of civil engineering. They also can conduct research, which provides the basis for some service projects.
CU students Max Gold and Evan Thomas were named finalists in the national Collegiate Inventors Competition last year for the "Bring Your Own Water" treatment system their team built in a Rwandan village. The gravity-fed system is capable of treating 8,000 liters of water a day through a series of settling and filtration tanks, and ultraviolet disinfection powered by a solar panel.
The project is one of several developed in the community of Muramba, which faces huge problems associated with poverty, drought, and the destruction of the town’s infrastructure during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Since 2004, CU students have helped to repair and improve the community’s 75-year-old water system, built rainwater catchments for additional capacity, and installed solar-powered lighting in a medical clinic and school. In the process, they have helped to build trust and reconciliation in the community.
Amadei now has his sights on another mission of reconciliation and reconstruction: joint projects involving Israeli and Palestinian engineering students and professionals. Both Israelis and Palestinians are creating EWB groups that are part of an international network Amadei co-founded in 2002.
"My goal is to get Israeli and Palestinian engineers to work together," he says. "It’s my own personal way of bringing peace into the world, one community at a time."