Published: Aug. 22, 2011

Fourteen graduate students from the Engineering for Developing Communities program at the University of Colorado Boulder traveled abroad this summer to gain field experience in community development.

The students partnered with nonprofit organizations, private companies and universities for four- to 12-week "practicum" experiences in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Bolivia, Uganda, Nepal and China.

The Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at CU-Boulder arranged the practicum experiences, which included support for drinking water and sanitation systems, low-carbon approaches to affordable housing, cook stove optimization and emission testing, and other community development projects.

Among the CU students who went abroad were Chalie Nevárez, Katie Spahr and Chance Steffey, who helped to implement a monitoring and evaluation system that uses smartphones to assess the sustainability of community-based drinking water and sanitation projects in Nicaragua.

The three students worked with El Porvenir, a nonprofit organization based in Denver that provides technical assistance and training for rural communities lacking access to government services to build and manage their own drinking water and sanitation systems.

Over a period of seven weeks, Nevárez, Spahr and Steffey helped train El Porvenir staff and local university students in the use of the smartphone system, and supervised the rollout of a pilot evaluation system in 44 rural communities.

The evaluations will help El Porvenir determine the factors that influence communities' ability to operate and maintain their water and sanitation systems in the long term. According to Rob Bell, executive director of El Porvenir, these factors could include hygiene education, environmental education, training of young people, or incorporation of women into the water and sanitation committees.

For students, the practicum experience gave them the opportunity to apply their engineering skills to a real-world project. The experience opened Nevárez's eyes to the world of development and has encouraged her interest in working in the field upon graduation.

"I learned that community development is not a linear problem and solution, and it's not just about the technology. There are many factors you have to consider such as politics, power, organization and economics," said Nevárez, who expects to graduate from CU in December with a master's degree in environmental engineering and who is bilingual in English and Spanish.

"The experience in Nicaragua was a great opportunity for me and I was so impressed with the ability of the local students and staff," she said. "The smartphones made the evaluation so much quicker; we uploaded a survey every 15 minutes and we got richer data with pictures of the projects.

"I would love to go back and keep working in the field as a development engineering consultant," she said.

The Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities promotes integrated, participatory and sustainable solutions to the engineering challenges of the developing world, with a focus on clean drinking water, sanitation and hygiene; energy; sustainable and disaster-resistant building materials and shelter; and cook stoves and indoor air quality.

The center sponsors courses in engineering and sustainable community development; administers a graduate certificate in engineering for developing communities; conducts research and design on appropriate technologies for developing communities; and provides technical assistance and training related to sustainable community development and appropriate technologies.

For more information about the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities, go to

A woman in El Sauce, Nicaragua, teaches children about hand washing using a well that the community built with El Porvenir in 2009. CU-Boulder graduate students gathered information about how this and other rural water systems are being used as part of an Engineering for Developing Communities practicum experience this summer. (Photo by Patrick Bresnan)