Engineering hope in Guatemala

Posted: October 14, 2019

During a service-learning trip to the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala last May, biomedical engineering major Tommy Carballada was moved by one woman’s story of walking four hours each way during the dry season just to get the water she needs to survive.

“It was eye-opening. It was ridiculous how drastically different the level of comfort of my life here, versus the work that it takes just to survive there,” said Carballada, who is also pursuing a humanitarian engineering minor at Ohio State. “I gained a much greater understanding of how lucky I am and how much I want to help people who aren’t as lucky.”

Smiling instructors and ten Ohio State students pose with four Mayan children.
Course coordinators Adithya Jayakumar (left) and Rachel Tuttle (right) and ten Ohio State students traveled to rural Guatemala last May.

Carballada is one of ten students, mostly engineering majors, who participated in the Guatemala Engineering Service-Learning program last May. The program gives students the opportunity to learn about humanitarian engineering through a meaningful, international engineering experience.

The 2018-2019 academic year was the first time the program was offered as an Ohio State education abroad course open to students of all majors, rather than an add-on to the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars Program.

Buckeye engineers have traveled to the Lake Atitlán region four times during the past five years to help address the tremendous needs of the indigenous Mayan population, including the lack of safe water, adequate nutrition and education. Facing widespread discrimination and disenfranchisement, approximately 79 percent of the Mayan population lives below the poverty line and nearly 70 percent of Mayan children are chronically malnourished.

The program’s status as an education abroad course enabled coordinators Rachel Tuttle and Adithya Jayakumar to take a more sustainable approach to helping in rural Guatemala.

In collaboration with in-country nonprofit Mayan Families, which helps the indigenous population through education, economic empowerment and general development work, the Ohio State team will focus on working with the community to engineer impactful solutions to some of their most pressing issues.

“This is the start of a three-year cycle,” explained Jayakumar, a lecturer in the Department of Engineering Education. “During the first year of human-centric design, we’re looking to collect as much information as possible, whether that is by interviewing folks, collecting data or taking measurements. This year we interviewed at least a dozen families.”

In spring 2020, a new group of students will design prototypes to address the selected problems before traveling to Guatemala over spring break to refine their designs and get community input. During the third year, another class will implement the final designs.

Happy students and their instructor pose with two Mayan women in their home next to a newly installed cook stove.
Buckeyes installed cook stoves in the homes of ten Mayan families.

After attending 80 hours of class in just 10 days, the Buckeyes left for Guatemala where they researched needs in two areas—water and agriculture. Students took measurements, and conducted soil and water quality tests to determine if, for example, diseases, metals and fertilizers were present.

Based on the preliminary results, Jayakumar thinks the projects the group might pursue include testing the efficacy of Ecofilter water filters currently in use and installing a rainwater harvesting system on a preschool in the village of Terra Linda, a mountainous town that lacks a reliable water source. On the agriculture side, the team is exploring creating either a community vegetable garden or a tree garden that would supply free saplings.

The Buckeyes also assembled and installed cook stoves in the homes of ten families to help combat the prevalent respiratory illnesses the population experiences, due in part to cooking over an open flame indoors.

Carballada was overwhelmed by the kindness shown by the families they helped.

“They were the most grateful people I’ve seen in my life,” he explained. “They were so willing to give us food and water while we were installing the cook stoves. They were insistent on reciprocating what they could.”

The group also served lunch to the elderly one afternoon, helped preschoolers with STEM learning activities and installed several water filters.

“Even the central lake, Lake Atitlán, is very polluted,” Jayakumar said. “It’s so bad that often mothers will give their infant children Pepsi or Coke over water because the water is so abysmal. A water filter is a game-changer for a family.””

Ohio State students and Mayan children gather around tables to do a learning activity.
Ohio State students help kids with STEM learning activities at a Mayan Families

The course coordinators couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome of the trip.

“I think it was our best trip. The students really dove right in and were vulnerable in a way that I didn’t expect. They took in the experience and were open to learning new things,” said Advisor Rachel Tuttle, manager of the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars Program. “The quality of their work was exceptional. I was really blown away with the depth of the report they wrote.”

Carballada agrees that the trip was a success, calling it one of his “most memorable experiences.” His advice for any student who is on the fence about studying abroad? Go for it!

“Absolutely do it,” he said. “You’ll have so much fun and at the same time your worldview will expand. You’ll get a greater understanding of what you want to do as well as what you need to do to improve the lives of the people that you see.”

To support more Buckeye Engineers making humanitarian impact around the world, consider a gift to the Humanitarian Engineering Center.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,